When Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey Teamed Up to Fight Dragons
By Nick Nadel
In Reign of Fire, two future A-list actors gifted us with an epic B movie.
By the early 2000s, Christian Bale had reinvented himself from dancing Newsie to acclaimed actor in films like American Psycho and Velvet Goldmine, and Reign of Fire offered him a chance to dip his toes into sci-fi/fantasy waters three years before Batman Begins launched him onto the Hollywood A-list. Matthew McConaughey, on the other hand, was deep into his charming “alright, alright, alright” dude-bro phase with his role as a bald, cigar-chomping dragon slayer sandwiched between rom-com hits The Wedding Planner and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Meanwhile, the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises were just getting underway, offering epic, big budget takes on beloved fantasy novels. So it isn’t surprising that audiences and critics balked at the sci-fi action pulp of Reign of Fire just when fantasy filmmaking was starting to get serious.
But it’s exactly those B-movie throwback charms, along with a stellar cast that includes a pre-300 Gerard Butler, and groundbreaking special effects, that makes Reign of Fire so eminently watchable. The script has real stakes with its humans versus dragons conflict, but also isn’t afraid to have fun -- the survivors celebrate a victory by partying to the tune of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” and Quinn (Bale) and Creedy (Butler) act out the lightsaber battle from The Empire Strikes Back as entertainment for a group of children. (Keep an eye out in this scene for a pre-Game of Thrones Jack Gleeson , who told fans at New York Comic Con about an unfortunate bathroom-related accident the young actor had on the Reign of Fire set.)
The central premise, that dragons are unleashed on the world after workers on the London Underground penetrate an ancient cave, is laid out efficiently so that the plot can move on to important stuff like soldiers jumping out of helicopters and catching winged beasties in nets. The bulk of the film is set in the year 2020, where Quinn leads a band of survivors through a Mad Max-style burned-out, English countryside. (It’s refreshing to hear Bale utter lines like “Only one species is getting out of this alive!” in his actual accent.) In saunters Van Zan (McConaughey), the more-than-a-little unbalanced leader of a band of soldiers called the Kentucky Irregulars, with a dragon tooth necklace and some ideas on how to defeat the airborne menaces.
The dragon design and special effects in Reign of Fire proved highly influential to the current fantasy boom. Director Rob Bowman (The X-Files) and his team of special effects wizards took inspiration from the way cobras and bombardier beetles attack their prey while devising the dragons’ chemical spitfire attack, and Bowman drew from his experience living through the San Fernando earthquake for scenes where Quinn prays with frightened children and rallies his fellow survivors to battle. Visually, the dragons Bale and McConaughey go toe-to-claw with have much more in common with Smaug from The Hobbit or Daenerys’ winged children in Game of Thrones than the cuddly fire-breathers in kid-friendly fantasy flicks like Dragonheart and Pete’s Dragon that came before it.
With its mix of apocalyptic survival fiction and fantasy tropes, Reign of Fire was ahead of the genre mash-up curve.