Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The awful "Reign of Fire," 100% Johnny Cash free

I walked into the Midtown theater with my brother, big grins on our faces. 2002's "Reign of Fire" would be the last movie I saw before leaving NYC. The special effects looked great. The hyper-talented Christian Bale leads a desperate struggle against Dragons bent on destroying humankind, 15 years in the future. Fair enough.

In two words: Fizzle. Pop.

 Finally, McConaughey realizes he smokes too much weed.

See, it comes off like an "Alien" picture, but with dragons, Earth, Christian Bale, Gerard Butler, and Matthew McConaughey! Derivative and almost-hokey? Sure. Well, even if your standards were that low, you would've been let down.

What you do get is annoyingly typical: A lot of movies with a sci-fi basis - and that's what "RoF" seemed like and is categorized as - tend to fall on the cliched backdrop: British and sort-of-medieval. It got old by "Alien 3." In fact, this trailer reminds me of "A3," another disappointment. 

The way the story plays out is a real bait-and-switch, as it wasn't in the ads: We begin in the modern day. People are digging in London's tube system. Suddenly some large thing wakes up. Fire breaks out and people start screaming. Here it comes!

Oh, no, it doesn't. Newspaper pages come across the screen to tell us that the dragons are old, killed the dinos even(!), and they're decimating us. The newspapers keep popping up, with no scenes of fighter jets acing flying lizards. No ICBMs getting roasted. No choppers trying to save Florence, Versailles, or Philly. You don't see or hear or feel mankind's downfall.

I guess that wouldn't have been interesting, anyway.

We start again in the future, which is actually Ye Sort-Of Olden Times. 20 minutes in and it's going downhill. The rest is a whole lot of quiet followed by a few moments of intense CGI action.

The amazing thing is, the CGI wasn't what undermined "Reign of Fire." It looks quite good, really. Also, the only option would be people fighting giant puppets; that alternative wouldn't have made the picture more engaging. Feeling emotional while watching this - that would've made the picture more engaging.

We spend time with a bunch of stereotypical survivor-types. They're all simple, solid, and reclusive. They want to stay alive and avoid those pesky creatures that we never got to see modern man fight at all. Then a bunch of good ol' Amurr-icans show up, lead by bat-%^*# crazy Matthew (duh). Matt's role has the extra-wtf name of Denton Van Zan. He sounds like something a gyn does. Or maybe, uses.

See, Matthew's tough because he looks more Viking-ey.

The gung-ho guys and girls who show up somehow have tanks, armed jeeps, skydiving troopers, and a chopper. Wild Yanks with big, fuel-guzzling, eye-catching toys. In England... Well, it's as likely as the monsters.

The troops are high on life and testosterone, totally into stomping lizards! To the extreme! Also, intent on taking what they want, and they want fighters for their siege on the dragons. Bale won't let it happen without a fight; Bale loses that fight.

Will McConaughey's daring plan succeed? Or will the male dragon take revenge on Bale's town, as feared? And what will happen to the children?

The movie needed a lot more of this.

It could almost sort of work, yet there's no true motivation here. "Survival" is the theme, sure - it should be emotionally involving, though. They'd need a baby or dog always in frame to even get close. If director Rob Bowman had gone that way, I still think "RoF" would lack motivation.

The flick just gives us a mindless goal: Denton Van Zan, the creatine-using Dutch monster-killer has somehow gleaned (a) that the dragons are all females, (b) that there's only one male, and (c) the evil dragon daddy is in London. DVZ (snort) figures that killing that male means there won't be any more eggs, and the short-lived female dragons will all die out. So, then we're Saved. After the beasts die off.


Dragons, I can buy. But can McConaughey possibly be that smart?

Look over that description as many times as you like... It won't make more sense, no matter how many times you read it. Yet that is what the picture is driving to - that is the climax/goal/resolution.

Can you imagine what it would take to give that ridiculous narrative any weight, importance, resonance, or depth? How cool the action scenes would have to be? How incredibly rich the characters and setting dialog and whole "Reign of Fire" world would have to be?

The camera-work is fine. The effects are very, very good. The action can get in the neighborhood of "exciting," but it's not engrossing because it never connects. And it's certainly not what you want from a movie like this. It's all too slow, without sustaining thrills, or a good pace. The rest isn't good enough to save this mess.

In real life, golden eggs are icky.

Ultimately, the problem is that Matt's character goes hand-in-hand with the action sequences in this movie. So, both Denton and the action come off with the sort of desperate, phony, shallow "extremeness" that you've seen of Mountain Dew ads. We dig that fighters are a little nuts, but you won't get me amped up like this...

Christian Bale is a fine actor, but his character doesn't really get "the breath of life" here. We find out that Bale's part is supposed to be the little kid who accompanied his mommy to work in the London Underground Dragon Disaster of 2002. We get a sense that he's sort of a "brave coward." The film-makers could've really done something there...

I mean that. Christian gets genuine characterization here: little Bale saw a monster kill his mommy, then destroy the rest of the world. As a grown-up, he's in charge of large group of people, and hiding=living. You see this look in his eyes a few times, and you know: he's downright haunted, scared of these things the same way some adults are terrified of even small-ish dogs.

It's a promising element in a character, especially in an action pic, and especially if used well. The story, plots, and dialogue were all handled in a way that couldn't make much of this. Even Bale can only play it up so much without demanding re-writes, more scenes, etc...

Without deeper characterization, or a more intricate storyline, that choice was a critical mistake. Especially for a movie like this, playing up a sense of unpredictable insanity still requires an comprehensible over-arching goal. Since you never get a solid grounding in anything, it's really a problem. And the fun just isn't fun enough, so nothing else saves the ride.

"I just said I like your butt!" "Hey, I'm Batman, dammit!"

Heaven help me, even most of those Mountain Dew commercials were pretty tongue-in-cheek; "RoF" can't say the same. That decision is as ham-fisted as the picture's progression, which started in modern times, then went to fake-medieval times, but with tanks and a chopper. Yet it comes down to axes, jeep-mounted harpoons, and arrows with C4.

There have been movies that did things like this before the fx got so good. Dragonslayer, for one. Sure, that film was hokey and long; the lead wasn't the most compelling person around. Yet that sorta-silly pic did a good job at building its universe, populating it with characters, creating suspense, and giving all the action a purpose. It's actually well-regarded. It's also from 1981, and cost $14M.

"Reign of Fire" had no excuse, doing so little with what it had - some nice ideas, $60M, good CGI, solid cast, and tons of bad, unthrilling execution. So: 40% on Rotten Tomatoes; I've seen better with lower. It didn't provide all-out monster brawl, or an inviting and interesting world.

Remember the beginning of this post? When I wrote about the "British" and "retro-medieval" cliches? Well, there's another big cliche at work: the "scientific explanation that doesn't actually make sense so it might as well all be magic" thing. Yes, that old chestnut.

See, because "Reign" is like a lot of pictures of its era - it wants to "science things up." Part of this is actually clever - I liked using the idea that some organisms can hibernate for ages, and using Dragons to explain prior mass-extinctions on Earth. There's even a description of how the beasties breath fire. It sounds like they're trying to be reasonable, right?

This use of science is nice, until you notice that it doesn't hold up to easy questions. Like that whole "one male" thing. The film needs it so that it can continue to short-change the audience on super-dragon battle action; with one male, the cast only needs to resolve one big obstacle.

However: if there was only one male, and it's the one that Bale's mommy woke up, then how did it reproduce? Where did it find a female dragon? The male was buried too deep for it to fly around the world and wake up some sleeping dragonette.

You go in for a dragon apocalypse, but don't get it. They give you a dragon post-apocalypse, yet not a good one. Then they try to take a "rational" approach to something fantastical - half-heartedly. If it didn't want to show the dragonpocalypse, couldn't the flick at least give a good excuse for why mankind lost in the first place?

Are we really to believe that super-sonic jets, 21st Century missiles, and various radar and satellite systems were as good against dragons as tissue paper? If we're supposed to accept that, shouldn't we receive a reason to accept that?

There was a catastrophic difference between what I expected and what I got. Or even between what I got and what I would have accepted anyway. I have to call this movie "awful." It doesn't deserve to vaguely remind me of a really good song.

P.S. - I have to thank my friend Monica for spotting a silly mistake. Originally, I wrote that Van Zan is played by Woody Harrelson. It was dumb of me, but look at the photos here! I think you'll agree that MM kinda looks like Woody, especially with his hair shaved off...

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