A kid looks anxiously skyward, sniffs the air and declares, straight-faced, “Dragon breath.” Pretty much every actor plays it hilariously straight in Reign of Fire, the accidentally hysterical 2002 when-dragons-ruled-the-earth action fantasy. The smoke and ash-covered Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco and Gerard Butler play survivors of the worldwide apocalyptic scorch-job done by hordes of fire-breathing dragons roused from millennia of beauty rest. But the grimmer and grittier the actors play their roles, the funnier things get. “They’re starving now and they’re more dangerous than ever,” we’re told and we think they mean the dragons but they may as well mean the cast.
Take Bale, for instance. A traumatized survivor of childhood dragon attack that killed his miner mother (Alice Krige), Bale plays the tough, unyielding Brit leader of an underground community secreted in a castle in the North of England and desperately running out of food and hope but handily equipped with trucks and a horse that appears to be in the peak of health. Bale is all scowls and misplaced intensity, yelling much of his dialogue in a thick as glue, “Oi! Blimey!” Cockney accent that almost makes Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins pleasant by comparison.
Into the action struts all-American dragon slayer McConaughey backed by a fighting force that includes pilot Izabella Scorupco, tanks and even helicopters, although don’t ask us where anyone goes to fuel up in a scorched world – let alone where McConaughey scores his supply of eyeliner and lash separator. “That’s a big tank,” says Bale, as McConaughey’s war machines rumble into the castle courtyard, in one of the movie’s many moments of zany dialogue. Eyeing McConaughey and his band of brothers, the scene-grabbing Butler drawls, “Only one thing worse than dragons – Americans.”
Southern baked ham McConaughey – wild-eyed, head shaved, heavily inked, dragon tooth-wearing, stogie stub-chomping -- seems to be playing some crazy pile-up of Apocalypse Now’s Mr. Kurtz, a Road Warrior refugee and Dr. Strangelove’s crackpot General “Buck” Tergidson. He’s the whole bag of nuts, all right, but funny and charismatic as hell, especially in his tearful, scenery-chewing speech slamming Bale for partying after they’ve all slain a dragon that cost McConaughey the lives of a slew of men: “These beasts live in ash. They feed on death. There’s no middle ground, not for them, not for us and sure as hell not for my men who died out there today. But you go ahead and have your little soiree. Personally, you disgust me. We bury our dead at dawn.” Bale stares as McConaughey storms off, slowly shaking his head and damned if it doesn’t look like he’s thinking, “Bitch is stealing this movie.”
Not one to be upstaged easily, though, though, Bale amps up the nuttiness. Responding to his co-star’s warning that they must kill the bull dragon that is impregnating all the females, Bale snaps, “When I’m running for my life, I don’t stop to look at the plumbing!” When a big brawl breaks out with McConaughey – who is apparently contractually obliged to tear off his shirt to display his chiseled torso -- Bale yells over and over, “I’ll kill ya! I’ll kill ya! I’ll kill ya!,” although with Bale’s marble-mouthed accent, we’re only guessing that’s what he was saying. Doe-eyed, earnest ex-Bond girl Scorupco explains of McConaughey as she tends to the bloody, beaten Bale: “He doesn’t feel anything. That’s the only way he can do what he does.”
We’re guessing you’re going to feel nothing but mirthful gratitude once the trio of survivors schlep to dragon-dominated London and lock horns with a couple of dragons at dusk – the time when dragons’ eyes can’t focus, says the screenplay -- before taking on that ridiculously horny, fertile male. Surveying the ruins of London, Bale quips, “Well, this town’s gone to hell.” After all the noise, fire and buildup, the whole thing ends with more a whimper than a bang, what with Bale’s hilarious statement, “If they come, they’ll burn, we’ll build” to which Scorupco replies, “Well, here’s to evolution. And here’s to the special place Reign of Fire holds in the hearts of fans of wonderfully woeful movies.