RECAP: Reign of Fire

Reign of Fire (2002): Rob Bowman

What do you get when you combine Batman, an Oscar winner, and dragons? You get a movie that no one saw, but everyone should. You get Reign of Fire.

One of my guilty pleasures, I keep returning to Reign of Fire when I want to feel good about my own life. At least there aren’t thousands of dragons ruling the skies.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: England, burned under a dragon scourge, turns to Americans for salvation. 

Hero (5/10)

Quinn is a boy living in London. He visits his mother’s worksite everyday after school. She’s the foreman on a deep dig beneath London. It’s unclear what they are digging for, but we know it’s deep. Very deep. Below Roman times deep.

One normal afternoon Quinn takes the service elevator to see his mum after a hard day’s work, where she’s all set to kick back with her son and a can of Bud. (What? This is a movie about dragons, and I found this moment, a blue collar Englishwoman drinking a Budweiser the least believable.)

One of her diggers has found a “void,” and little Quinn gets to go inside, because all children should be allowed to spelunk job sites. Quinn finds the stalactites and -mites one would expect in a cave, except some of these are on fire. And moving.

Next thing he knows, a large reptile spits in his face. He runs out and screams about something being down there, but it’s well too late for that. The dragon is loose, burning everything in its wake, and killing Quinn’s mother.

Cue the montage of dozens of articles tracing the rise of dragons and downfall of society. Adult Quinn (Christian Bale) narrates the journey, about twenty years, from first dragon to nuclear war to, the most dangerous kind, starving dragons.

Quinn has set up a society in Northumberland, centered on a castle. They have a safe room and can flood the walls with water. They have a small tomato crop. Quinn even has time to make up a story about an asthmatic Black Knight who is also the father of his sworn enemy, the White Knight.

Quinn’s the boss, and everyone respects him. Everyone except the few hungry who break ranks to harvest the tomatoes ahead of schedule. Despite their flying in the face of command, Quinn still goes to save them when the dragon attacks.

Quinn is very much a man of principle. He has a long talk with Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), during a very important scene, and he looks into his eyes, and buys the whole “flew from America and killed dragons” routine. Turns out, his speculation is correct.

Van Zan arrives and snatches the Brits and the movie from Quinn. Being a good leader, Quinn accepts second banana status.

Villain (5/10)

The first dragon we see is a female (although we don’t know that yet). Before attacking the tomato pickers, she announces herself through various ways. First, the dragon-spotting falcon cries. Second, the rocks above a ridge tumble. Third, the dragon soars over the ridge. There she is, for sure, this time.

A few guys have lost their minds and are harvesting tomatoes ahead of season. They are taunted and attacked pretty quickly by the dragon. At one point she stands in front of the water trucks and spits fire at them, forcing a terrifying reverse drive to another exit point. The dragon doesn’t even care about the humans; she only wants the ash.

This fact alone makes the dragons so terrifying. They don’t use fire for defense, or hunting, or intimidation. They burn things to eat them. They will burn everything until nothing left can be burned. So, if you can live through a generation of fire, you know you will survive. But you can’t know that until it’s over, can you?

The dragons’ lack of other food sources makes them easily beatable as well. If humans decided to burn everything first (an act alluded to in the montage) they might end the threat more quickly. This is exactly the logic used to fight forest fires. Firefighters create concentric circles surrounding the blaze, burning everything, chewing up fuel.

Much like doctors who cut off the leg to save the patient, the governments of the world fought dragon fire with nuclear fire. It seems that they didn’t know they were doing it until much too late.

The male dragon is the final boss dragon, but I will discuss all the dragons here. They are smart. Quinn tells Van Zan that he has seen the male dragon. They pissed it off. It tracked a team back to their home, and burned everything to the ground. “You’ve never seen destruction like that,” Quinn says.

Van Zan and his crew drive to London, only to be stopped 66 kilometers out by the hulking wrecks of human life, implying that the dragon has destroyed everything within a circle 88 miles wide.

The male dragon knows the Kentucky Irregulars are there, and he toys with them before opening up his arsenal on the regiment. Van Zan, Alex, and a couple others are the only survivors. But the male is not finished. He follows the tank treads back to Quinn’s castle, laying waste to it as Quinn is in the field picking up a dragon egg.

Many people die, and mostly because the dragon got mad. World views were shaped and cracked. These are the scars left by a good villain. The male stands atop the castle as if conquering it, as if he knew it belonged to Quinn, and he was only biding his time to destroy it at Quinn’s lowest moment.

Action/Effects (5/10)

As I’ll discuss later, I believe the filmmakers spent most of their budget on the ruined London landscape. That left little money for the action scenes during the rest of the movie. Only one stands out, and it involves Archangels.

Van Zan and his regiment have arrived at Quinn’s compound. They brought a helicopter, which surprises all the English people, and somewhat verifies Van Zan’s dragon-slaying proclivities. Shortly after the soldiers arrive, the female dragon returns for more ash. Now we can see them go to work.

Whatever Quinn and company would do in dragon attacks is unknown, and unimportant, as the cavalry is about to ride into action. Cavalry in the twenty-first century means armored, and airborne cavalry, and what might be the last working helicopter on Earth. Alex (Izabella Scorupco) is the pilot, and she rides out with her Archangels. “Seventeen seconds: once they jump from the chopper that’s their life expectancy.”

To see the enemy, Alex needs a 3D mapping system. Enter the guys on motorcycles. Three men speed out carrying radar devices they plunge into the rocky ground, which triangulate the dragon’s position. The first two guys have an easy go with it. The third guy is motoring up a craggy hillside when the dragon spots him. He ends his days as barbecue.

Quinn, who’s been eavesdropping on the radio channels, somewhat deduces Van Zan’s plan. He doesn’t know what they’re doing, but it’s clear that whatever the cycler carried needs to go “up” quickly. Quinn sends out the cavalry, the old-fashioned hoofed kind, and finds the fiery wreckage of the motorcycle. He also gets the triangulater up.

Now Alex can go to work. The skies above England are, as always, cloudy. She’s able to elude the dragon in these clouds, and now that she has radar, she has the upper hand. Except the radar is now indicating that the dragon is flying directly toward them. Oops.

One angel tumbles from the copter. He’s the bait. The other two guys fly after them. The camera switches between the POV of the bait and the hunters. Always they are falling through intermittent clouds, the dragon visible one second and invisible the next. Their seventeen seconds are ticking.

The hunters pull out their big guns–handheld cannons that fire chain mail nets. They can’t see the dragon, but shoot anyway. The bait confirms they’ve scored a direct hit on both wings. But the dragon still flashes in and out the clouds. They don’t know if it’s down.

They definitely know when the two nets fly past the hunters. Bad news. But where’s the dragon? The bait confirms, she’s still speeding toward him, and we see his vision as she opens her wings to slow down. Why? Oh yeah, the seventeen seconds are up.

The bait thuds into the ground and flatlines on Van Zan’s nifty radar screen. The dragon turns on her hunters, crunching one in her mouth, but the other gets away and deploys his chute with moments to spare.

This scene excelled in its speed, the anxiety caused by the clouds, and the presence of a dragon. The shots were cut well. Three people died, and these the best soldiers in the world for killing dragons.

Van Zan has a different method for killing the beast. He tells Quinn to be the bait, or rather to use “sixteen hundred pounds of horse flesh” as bait.

Quinn speeds across the rocky plain with his fearless horse. Van Zan stands ready at the bolt shooting gun atop his vehicle. As soon as Quinn crests the ridge, Van Zan fires, and the bolt zips past Quinn and into the throat of the dragon. The humans are on the scoreboard.

Sidekicks (7/8)

Van Zan is on his own journey. He doesn’t fit the mold of sidekick, as he’s not interested in what Quinn is doing. These men collide, literally and figuratively in the movie’s last hour, and though they make up for their transgressions, Van Zan never bows to Quinn’s will. But Reign of Fire is definitely Quinn’s movie, so I have to discuss his Yank frenemy here.

Van Zan arrives on the scene in Northumberland inside a tank, chewing a long-dead cigar. He opens the hatch door, in fact, and grunts his way out into the ashy air like he suffers from arthritis. As we’ll see later, he doesn’t.

In a brief chat with Quinn, we learn Van Zan’s killed a dragon and flown from America to England. Bollocks, thinks Quinn, and why is he at my door? He wants to rest, maybe draft a few soldiers; they’ll be out of his hair by the next day. Quinn agrees.  As soon as they’ve entered the compound, a helicopter flies overhead. Maybe he did kill that dragon.

Van Zan has a theory, one that could fill a different movie. He’s traced dragon attacks back to London. All the dragons he’s killed have been female. He believes that one male dragon exists, and he lives in London.

Van Zan is insane. Alex, his sidekick, tells Quinn that “he doesn’t feel things. That’s the only way he can do what he does.” This statement comes after Van Zan has nearly beaten Quinn to death.

Henchmen (4/8)

The male dragon is the villain. So I guess the females are the henchmen. For most of the movie, though, we don’t know about the lone male dragon (who might or might not be the last in the world), and assume that the females are the villains.

These females are as effective as the male at killing. They simply are smaller. And they are highly effective. The female dragon we see in action taunts the humans after killing their brethren. She stands in front of the water trucks and burns them, forcing them to reverse. She swoops over the tomato fields, burning everything and nearly everyone. But she cares not about killing the humans. She only wants the ash. These lady dragons work well because they are smart and effective fliers and hunters.

Stunts (3/6)

Quinn and Van Zan engage in a brutal fistfight after the latter tries to draft Quinn’s people. It’s a nifty fight, and one in which each character fights to their strengths.

Quinn strikes first, surprising Van Zan, which Quinn is smart enough to know is the only way he’ll win the fight. Van Zan needs little time to recover though, and you can practically see McConaughey’s face lock into “fight mode” as he dodges punches and sweeps the leg.

For Quinn, the fight is personal, and he’s all emotion, exactly what we expect from this sensitive leader of Northumberland. Van Zan fights like it’s his job, and it is. When the American downs the Brit, he wails thunderous punches on him that only stop because the other Americans pull Van Zan away. Had they not, Quinn would be dead.

The Archangels comprise the crux of the most heart-stopping scene. How much of the scene was green screened and how much was CGI? I can’t tell. But watching those men fall through the clouds, with the dragon flickering in and out of view amongst the clouds mesmerized me.

Finally, I must acknowledge Van Zan’s insane, axe-wielding leap into the jaws of the male dragon. Van Zan was a fighter of legend, a guy who might have won the Victoria Cross if such a thing existed in the post-dragon world. Van Zan was so over-the-top insane, that anything but his defiant death would be unacceptable.

Climax (3/6)

“You, me, Alex,” Quinn says. “Take the chopper down the coast, follow the cliffs, the Thames’ll takes us right into London.” So that’s what they do.

Vincent Van Zan, wrestling heel turned U.S. Army, believes the only dragon male in the world still lives in London. The chopper flies (in beautifully photographed scenes) above the shimmering blue coastal waters and the cliffs of eastern England.

We are spared the meandering flight up the ruined banks of the river until the chopper lands on a concrete protuberance diverting the Thames. The trio disembarks a few hundred yards from the ruins of Parliament and Big Ben. Quinn promised that Van Zan had never seen destruction like that. If he has, he ain’t sayin’.

The city appears riddled with dragons, and at one moment hundreds of them fly away from the male, who blasts into the skies and eats one of the females. We have already seen that this dragon is the size of a Northumbrian castle, and now he matches the size of Parliament. This guy practically is the British government, so the comparison makes sense.

“They’re eating their own,” Quinn observes. Despite the explanations earlier in the movie, one wonders how dragons could survive, even if they, cicada-like, surface only once every ten centuries or so. And yet, while one wonders, one must also remember that Gerard Butler is not the most ridiculous actor on screen.

Van Zan, mirroring an earlier command, says, “You lead, we follow,” to Quinn. London is Quinn’s home; he knows its underground. He was there on the day the male woke up and killed his mother. So this time, it’s personal.

Quinn leads them through the enormous ruins of the city, and here you can find the results of the film’s budget. Large sets of hulking scrap metal charred nearly to ashes mark zones of activity for our heroes.

Quinn takes them to the square where he first escaped the male, probably twenty years prior. Luckily, things haven’t changed much. The heroes meet beside the fifteen-story exhaust tower dug deeply, too deeply, beneath London. Quinn gives them the layout of the square, which is enclosed on all sides, and identifies a still-standing chimney that can function as a good watchtower.

They sprint across the square to a Tube car. Van Zan offers a tactical plan that involves splitting up, bait, and magnesium-tipped explosive arrows that must be fired at 50 feet or less. Quinn takes the arrows, Alex, gets the machine gun, and Van Zan, who will climb the chimney, takes one arrow and his axe.

The dragon is on them. He’s so huge that he takes at least ten seconds to turn after passing over and firebombing the humans. The humans use that time to split up.

Quinn hides by a wall, only to realize he’s dropped his arrows in the sprint to safety. Van Zan, who has climbed the chimney, doesn’t know this. He yells at Alex to run to the chimney’s base, acting as bait. She does and brings the dragon to Van Zan, who fires an explosive arrow, only to have its blast canceled by a fire breath from the dragon.

The American is out of gunpowder-based options. He’s gonna do it the old-fashioned way–with an axe and ton of grit. Van Zan leaps from the chimney toward the speeding dragon. For a brief moment we see a shot of him flying through the air from twenty stories below, his prone body silhouetted against the permanent brown of the London sky.

It is Van Zan’s finest moment, and precedes a great movie death, as the meets the crunching maw of the world’s only male dragon. Exit Kentucky Irregulars.

Alex barely avoids the detritus tumbling upon her as the dragon circles for another pass. She limps away and Quinn helps her and confesses his loss of the arrow.

But wait! She’s spotted one near a truck. After some dodging and weaving, Quinn gets the arrow but struggles to arm the crossbow. The dragon has landed and is creeping through the square. He wants to finish the humans.

Alex diverts the dragon’s attention by peppering him with machine gun fire. Dragons don’t care much for pepper, only flame-broiled. Quinn, now armed, steps in front of the dragon, waits for its mouth to open, and zips all the explosive force packed into a grenade-tipped arrow into the dragon’s mouth. A tremendous blast rips the dragon apart and sends Quinn and Alex flying. They have slain the beast.

Jokes (1/4)

Gerard Butler as Creedy provides the black comedy. Who else but an Irishman could find humor in the desolation of his home? Creedy claims that the only thing worse than a dragon is an American. Considering that the American forcibly drafts his people, you can understand why.

OK, that’s about it for jokes. Intentional ones. McConaughey is the real draw. When not grunting or chewing moist cigars, he’s staring deep into the eyes of his fellow actors. Watching Reign of Fire, it’s hard to tell if he’s hamming it up or actually crazy. I guess that’s the sign of good acting. I guess.

Setting (1/4)

Most of Reign of Fire takes place in a dragon-induced wasteland. Quinn’s stronghold of Northumberland appears as barren as Iceland, or even the arctic wastes of Canada and Russia.

We are to believe that dragons have burned everything for the last twenty years. Seeing the landscape, we believe it. Quinn made a wise choice of holing up inside a castle.

This particular castle, from the inside, is spacious like Versailles or the Forbidden Palace. Ceilings are vaulted and high, large open windows are everywhere, and there’s even a basement. Anyone who’s ever visited a medieval castle knows that stone was heavy, stone was expensive, and castles were small, cold, dark, and dreary.

The present-day humans discovered a way around those last two drawbacks. They lit hundreds of candles. I’m glad candlemakers and good wax was able to survive into the dragon times. For an in-depth description of life after a nuclear holocaust, read A Canticle for Liebowitz. For a fun action movie where you don’t care about wax production, watch Reign of Fire.

The climactic scenes occur in London. If you thought the blue-blacks of Northumberland were bad, try the ruined orange-grey of London that resembles the Luftwaffe’s wet dream. The male dragon has caused so much destruction that wreckage is backed up for 66 kilometers, or “clicks,” as I’m sure Van Zan thought it.

When Alex flies the chopper into London, we are first treated to the gorgeous landscapes comprising the British coastline. Blue water shimmers and white cliffs impose. Green hills belie the life-and-death struggle between humans and dragons.

The dragon’s lair evokes the programming styles of the video game developers of that era. The former worksite is now a wasteland encircled by upright buildings. A charred Underground car sits at an angle above the ground. The entire site is overlooked by a factory chimney, conveniently still intact.

Ash blankets the ground, but affords many nooks and crannies for tasty humans to hide inside. This is good set design. The humans have nowhere to go, not that they would want to, once the whole point was to get there to kill the Buck, The Angry Dragon.

Commentary (0/2)

After the death of the female dragon, the English celebrate. We see the party as the Americans see it. The waifish British farmers, scratching a living off of rocks, blast “All Along the Watchtower” while the soldiers mourn the death of three of their men.

Van Zan and crew walk through the castle. Van Zan addresses the revelers. “You disgust me,” he says. The Americans saved the British asses with great loss of life (three men for one dragon won’t last long), and the British barely even acknowledge it.

Many Americans like to say that they “saved” the British in World War Two. Those Yanks are right in as much as many thousands of British lives were saved, but the blood shed by the Russians is ignored.

Van Zan is right. That dragon would certainly still be killing Brits if not for the blood shed by the three Americans. But Van Zan is also wrong, as he ignores the tremendous debt owed by all the people to Quinn’s efforts to raise the accuator and lead the dragon to the pointy spear Van Zan shoots.

The movie basically reminds viewers to never forget, and that freedom isn’t free, and that Yanks are perennially bailing out Limeys.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

In barbaric situations as present in Reign of Fire, some societies would easily revert to the old ways. The (film) roles of women are reduced in this movie, but perhaps the third-most important character is a woman.

Alex flies the helicopter, an essential task. For all of Van Zan’s leadership and bluster, he can only go as far as Alex can fly above him. We don’t know who flew the transport plane across the Atlantic, but Alex flies the chopper carrying the Archangels. They are the true heroes, and they deserve and receive such accolades.


  • Reign of Fire serves as a metaphor for global warming. I love all the ideas here. The male dragon lives very deep underground, and he breathes fire. The dragon is not far removed from Satan, demons, and such other such Beelzebubs. It’s not a long step to consider that England, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, is also home to the buck dragon, the force that will burn the world. Where did the females come from? We don’t know. You could call the sows the consequences of global warming. The buck is the human instinct to destroy, and it’s tagging us back.
  • Boys should not run around underground construction sites.
  • Van Zan is a walking phrasebook for strange colloquialisms, among them:
    • “Magic hour”: a term for killing dragons and movie shooting schedules
    • “I lead; you follow”: a dick thing to say to a person, especially when they are guests
    • “You lead; we follow”: a way to show deference
    • “You disgust me”: what to say when not invited to a party
    • “Horse flesh”: what you call a living horse

Summary (34/68): 50%

Reign of Fire came along at a strange time. Maybe it was too soon after 9/11 to watch the world burn. Maybe it was too strange a time in Matthew McConaughey’s career for him to be such a big draw. It was too early for Christian Bale, though he was an ascendant star even in 2002.

By 2016, Bale has played Batman and McConaughey owns an Oscar. A movie starring either of these men gets top promotion months out, and a movie starring both would be unthinkable. “How’d they get both of those guys?” people might ask.

But no one saw Reign. Too bad. They missed Bale diving into his role and they missed Mr. All Right All Right at the top of his steroid use (What?). They missed a movie about dragons killing the world. Shame on them. But you didn’t. You saw it.