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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 11/15/02

Reign of Fire
2002 (2002) - Touchstone/Spyglass (Buena Vista)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

Reign of Fire Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B/C-

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): B/B+

Specs and Features

102 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, Breathing Life into the Terror featurette (8 mins - 4x3, DD 2.0), If You Can't Take the Heat… featurette (15 mins, 4x3, DD 2.0), Conversations with Rob Bowman featurette (12 mins, 4x3, DD 2.0), theatrical trailer (4x3 letterboxed, DD 2.0), 4 promo trailers (for The Count of Monte Cristo, Bad Company, Kingdom Hearts and the Reign of Fire video game), animated film-themed menus with sound and music, scene access (11 chapters), languages: English (DD & DTS 5.1) and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English & Spanish, Closed Captioned

Fantasy and science fiction films have been done so badly, so many times over the last twenty or thirty years, that I've come to approach them with very low expectations. And even with those lowered expectations, Hollywood still usually manages to disappoint. So when I go into a film like this, I'm looking for two things. First, does the film manage to believably establish its concept. Basically, do you buy the premise or not? And second, does it refrain from doing anything that pulls you out of that suspension of disbelief? Too often these films have a tendency to inject a touch of "wink, wink" that reminds you you're watching a genre film. Thankfully, Reign of Fire succeeds brilliantly at the first and, with one or two exceptions, manages to avoid the second pitfall as well.

The place is England, the year 2020. Human civilization has been ravaged by a scourge once thought to be nothing more than the stuff of legend. A race of fire-breathing dragons has supplanted Mankind as the dominant species on the planet. It turns out that the dragons destroyed the dinosaurs millions of years ago, burning them to ash and feeding off the remains. Then, when there was nothing left to eat, most of the dragons died off as well. The rest went underground, lying dormant until the Earth replenished itself. And now they've risen to feed again.

Quinn (Christian Bale) saw the first dragon as a boy in London, years ago. Soon there were millions, and humans were forced to hide underground themselves to survive after all attempts to destroy the dragons with the world's military might failed, leaving the planet a burnt-out ruin. Now, Quinn and his friend Creedy are leading a small community of survivors, eeking out a meager existence in a make-shift fortress in Northumberland. But their food supply is dwindling, and their hopes for long-term survival are fading. Enter Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) and his cadre of U.S. Army "Irregulars", who have learned to hunt dragons successfully and have traced their origin to England. Van Zan and his chopper pilot, Alex (Izabella Scorupco), have discovered that there's only one male in all the millions of dragons on Earth. If they kill him, the whole population will eventually die out.

Knowing this, Van Zan's crafted a desperate plan to bring about just this result. But he needs more men to get the job done - men he intends to take from Quinn's community, by force if necessary. So Van Zan and Quinn find themselves on a collision course, the outcome of which will determine the fate of the human race. And even if they can resolve their differences, you can bet that the dragon in question isn't just going to roll over and die without a fight.

In the hands of second-time feature director Rob Bowman, Reign of Fire works surprisingly well. Within the first fifteen minutes, the film has set up its seemingly outlandish premise so handily, that you have absolutely no trouble buying into the story. It also treats its B-movie status with A-movie seriousness, and approaches its story with an energy that's refreshing. Aside from an obvious nod to The Empire Strikes Back, which thankfully happens early enough so as not to interfere with the developing story, Reign avoids the usual tongue-in-cheek pitfalls of B-movie infamy. The special effects are generally excellent and the film manages to conjure up a number of interesting action scenes - there's a couple of nifty moments in this film that definitely haven't been seen before on screen.

To be fair, there are also a few plot threads that you have seen elsewhere, including plenty of parallels in Van Zan to over-zealous characters in Moby Dick and Jaws. Most of the characters in this film are pretty 2D, which hurts its weight a little and lessens its impact. There are a few clunker lines of dialogue alongside some good ones. I find it very tough to hear Scorupco's barely-hidden eastern European accent (Polish I think?) and take her seriously as a U.S. Army chopper pilot. And more critically, Matthew McConaughey's performance is miles over the top here, and some viewers will probably balk at this. But his unabashed zeal in the role is also part of what makes this film so fun, if you accept it for what it is. And Bowman's blue collar, atmospheric direction adds a degree of reality to the action that you rarely see in a film like this. Bowman cut his teeth directing many of the best episodes of TV's The X-Files, as well as that franchise's first feature film, and he uses every bit of the skills he honed on the small screen to great effect here.

The anamorphic video presentation on the DVD is very solid, with excellent contrast and well defined shadow detail. There's a lot of visible grain in the print, but this is, I believe, a stylistic choice that adds to the grungy feel of the film. Color is accurate, if mostly muted, again a conscious decision. But when the color does need to burst vibrantly off the screen, saturation is excellent, without bleed. There's a noticeable amount of edge-enhancement here, but it's nothing overly distracting. There's also some light digital artifacting, but most will never notice it. On the whole, this isn't reference quality video, but I don't think it's meant to be. It is quite good for what it is and it services the film very well. Particularly praiseworthy is the "Archangels" sequence, involving a stylish and dramatic plunge through the clouds from a helicopter in pursuit of a dragon.

The audio is also solid on this disc, available in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 flavors (note that the Dolby 5.1 option is also available in both English and French). Neither track is going to win any awards, but both manage to get the job done, with the DTS version fairing just slightly better than its Dolby counterpart. The DTS isn't as smooth and natural as it is on some discs, but the Dolby mix feels a little tighter and more restrained. In both mixes, the dialogue gets occasionally a little buried in the music and sound effects during the more aggressive action scenes, but not distractingly so. Panning is smooth and the surrounds are nicely active, albeit in a more atmospheric sort of way most of the time. Low frequency supports the mix well in both tracks, filling in powerfully on the downbeat of dragon wings for example, and the rumbling discharge of a breath of flame. This audio is definitely designed to be played with the volume cranked, whichever 5.1 option you choose.

Sadly, the extras are limited to about 40 minutes worth of behind-the-scenes featurettes and a smattering of promo trailers, all of it non-anamorphic. I would really have liked an audio commentary, particularly for a film with so original an approach to its concept as this. Having long followed Bowman's work on The X-Files, I can tell you that the guy's both thoughtful and intelligent in his approach to his work, and both aspects are in evidence in this film. And given McConaughey's campy turn here, it would have been fun to get the two of them together in a room to talk about it all.

Still, the featurettes aren't totally uninteresting. Breathing Life into the Terror is a generic look at the film's special effects and other design/approach issues, while If You Can't Take the Heat... reveals the how the production dealt with all the fire work on the set. The best of the lot is Conversations with Rob Bowman, which is interesting, hinting at the things I've mentioned about Bowman above, and serving as a pseudo commentary look at his approach to filmmaking and his ideas about effectively thrilling his audience.

Reign of Fire is an undeniably good popcorn flick… and a helluva lotta just plain fun. If you don't like it, it certainly isn't because the filmmakers didn't give their all. The film is right at home among other such B-grade gems as The Arrival, Pitch Black and the recent Impostor. But this DVD is glaring underachievement. You can forgive Buena Vista for giving it short shrift, I suppose, if you consider the film's lackluster box office performance. But this is another prime example of a situation where marketing execs looking at spread sheets have been given way too much authority over the DVD release. In the hands of a studio with a more thoughtful, intelligent approach to this format (Anchor Bay anyone?), this is exactly the kind of film that could really find its legs on home video. I'm guessing Reign of Fire will eventually pick up a pretty enthusiastic following on DVD. I certainly hope so, because it's much deserving of a second (or should I say first) look by a larger audience. It's just too bad those potential fans have so little to look forward to from this disc.

Bill Hunt

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