Indeed, there's no benevolent Pete's Dragon or Sean Connery's Draco here -- by 2020 the foul dragons have snuffed out most of civilization -- but the beasts are employed to splendid metaphorical effect, which may be lost on viewers perceiving nothing but an action romp. From the beginning in the present day, we accompany a cheeky little boy into an underground London rail project spearheaded by his mum (dad is uncomfortably dismissed). Very swiftly, a fire-breathing dragon is released, which kills the mum and orphans the boy. A beautifully executed montage of fiery images from newspaper and magazine clippings leads us forward through the global devastation of nearly two decades. Meanwhile the narrator (Star Trek's Borg Queen, Alice Krige) explains of the rapidly multiplying, seemingly invulnerable dragons, "Ancient man had turned them into myths, but nature had made something far more terrible."
The charred wastes of Northumberland make up the setting for most of our action, as we meet the same boy, Quinn (Christian Bale, Velvet Goldmine), grown up into the whiskery leader-by-default of a fortified castle stronghold. Training the children to keep both eyes on the sky while awake and one eye while asleep, Quinn shoulders the unenviable burden of keeping his small community alive while sporadic dragon visits toast those who opt for freedom beyond the gates. The place is essentially a hybrid of a gothic bomb shelter and a high school in a bad neighborhood.
It's the arrival of a Kentucky-born soldier of fortune named Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey, The Newton Boys) that shakes things up. A practitioner of old-school frontier justice amped by new-school technology, the ripped, multi-tattooed good ol' boy -- whose name may as well have been Red Nek -- brings his troops inside the compound despite the nagging doubts of Quinn's confused right-hand man, Creedy (Gerard Butler, Dracula 2000). Quinn is extremely doubtful of his guests ("The only thing worse than a dragon," he mutters, "Americans"), but a glorious helicopter pilot named Alexandra (Izabella Scorupco, Vertical Limit) helps convince him that perhaps, with their help, they can actually kill the dragons and follow up with some post-apocalyptic whoopee.
There are a couple of sensational action sequences in Reign of Fire -- the aerial hunt and the final battle are awesome to behold -- but director Rob Bowman keeps us trained mostly on the bewildered humans, much as he did in The X-Files movie. Alas, there's no prolonged fighting set to a remix of Queen's "Dragon Attack" (although there is ironic use of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire"), possibly because the script (by Gregg Chabot, Kevin Peterka, and Matt Greenberg) is tight and tidy, with the dragons' impressive presence limited to key sequences only.
Besides, despite its stylistic lifts from Red Dawn (the encampment), The Road Warrior (the exposition), the Big Apple dragon flick Q (which also features a lead character called Quinn), and the Alien movies (of which this feels like the proper third installment), Reign of Fire is only peripherally about fantastic happenings. What's really afoot is a teary-eyed, chrome-domed cowboy (Van Zan) bolstering the bollocks of a pouty British sad lad (Quinn) just in time to save the world. Doubters may look no further than the fact that all the dragons attacking Quinn's world are female, and the only way he can survive as a man is to find and destroy their big, nasty sugar daddy.
Doubters of the story's metaphorical resonance -- be it intentional or otherwise -- need only consider this: Early in the movie, Quinn and Creedy act out a pivotal scene of modern folklore for the illumination of the stronghold's uniformed kiddies. The scene is from The Empire Strikes Back, in which Darth Vader battles Luke Skywalker, commanding his son to join him in his evildoings, which, of course, Luke would rather die than do. It's likely the most significant mythic moment in a generation or two of cinema, and -- as Quinn faces his own terrible destroyer of worlds -- it's hardly repeated here by happenstance.