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Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale slay dragons, and this wasn’t a hit?

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the summer movie season upon us, it’s time to sing the praises of some unsung and underrated summer blockbusters.

Reign Of Fire (2002)

For many summer movie fans, the life of Reign Of Fire began with a bit of old-fashioned flimflammery when the trailers and especially the poster promised a large-scale battle between human-piloted helicopters and vast armies of dragons. The actual movie takes a more practical one-dragon-at-a-time approach to its confrontations, with the most epic destruction limited to a brief overview of how Earth fell to these evil beasts. (In voiceover, dragons are even blamed for the extinction of dinosaurs!)


But once it becomes clear that Reign Of Fire is more scrappy post-apocalyptic survival story than epic Godzilla-sized smackdown, it also becomes easier to appreciate its B-movie craftsmanship. The movie sits right in the middle of longtime X-Files director Rob Bowman’s brief theatrical-feature career, and he knows his way around dark corridors and ominous moods. He uses the movie’s limited scope to fill in the details of a dragon-decimated United Kingdom landscape that looks even more ashen than usual.

Reign Of Fire’s focus also allows room for committed performances from its flesh and blood actors, including two future Oscar winners. Before codifying the questionable rom-com skill set that would eventually necessitate the coming of the McConaissance, Matthew McConaughey gave his all to the role of Denton Van Zan, American dragonslayer, who turns up at a settlement run by Quinn (Christian Bale) and demands fierce resistance to the winged oppressors. Growling, barking, and working a worn cigar stub like it’s a chew toy, McConaughey is obviously having fun. Yet he and Bale are just as intense here as they are in any number of more serious roles. They aren’t winking at their material.


Maybe it’s because the material isn’t too bad for a cheesy B-movie; it includes witty touches like Bale and his buddy (a young Gerard Butler) re-enacting the Star Wars saga as oral tradition for the entertainment of the settlement’s children. Invoking an epic summer movie on a low-tech scale is appropriate. Though the movie does briefly pit dragon against helicopter, Reign Of Fire also knows that three people with minimal weapons conspiring to kill a single dragon can be more exciting than an army of CG machines crashing into an army of CG beasts.

Availability: Reign Of Fire is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, or to rent or purchase through the major digital services.