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Reign of Fire

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French), DTS 5.1. Touchstone Home Entertainment. PG-13. $29.99.

Dragons have conquered the Earth, wrecking civilization and reducing mankind to a few bands of hapless survivors. The best thing about Reign of Fire is that the film offers an explanation for this catastrophe that sounds not silly, but plausible enough to carry you through the film's 102 minutes.

Director Rob Bowman, most famous for his work on The X-Files, populates this post-apocalyptic world with appropriately Road Warrior–ish humans and decidedly non-Dragonheart-ish fire-breathers. Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey are the human protagonists. McConaughey's Van San is an American ex-marine, a self-appointed dragon-slayer who's made his way to England in a rehabilitated military transport, along with some military hardware and a few dozen cohorts. Bale's Quinn is the leader of a few survivors holed up in an old castle (nice imagery), just trying to stay alive. Both actors do good work here, as does the rest of the cast. But I couldn't help but wonder if McConaughey prepared for his appropriately over-the-top performance by hiring Vin Diesel's acting coach, tattoo artist, personal trainer, and barber.

Reign of Fire follows the "less is more" school of special effects, relegating the dragon appearances to a few brief but incredibly intense scenes. There are some genuine leap-from-your-seat scares, but not enough of them—most of the film consists of character development. While this is well-done and renders the film a little more adult-friendly than the usual summer fare, the lack of constant, numbing action probably bored the film's largely teenage target audience.

Nevertheless, what we do get is spectacular. The dragon, particularly in close-up, looks frighteningly evil, and the CGI work is entirely believable. But the climactic quest for the big-papa dragon, which should have been the film's centerpiece, feels like an afterthought, despite the fact that it's strikingly well done. It just needed to be a few minutes longer and present our heroes with a few more obstacles to overcome. Nevertheless, the movie is fun to watch and might even become a cult favorite.

The extras aren't much. The best of them, "Conversations with Rob Bowman," is worthwhile, though the subjects could have been better covered in a commentary track—and there is none. The video quality is respectable, but downgraded here for too much edge enhancement. I've seen worse, but it's clearly visible on a screen of any reasonable size. The sound is respectable, though a little bright and scrappy, particularly in the recording of Edward Shearmur's forgettable music (a better score would have greatly enhanced the film).

Still, Reign of Fire is the best "Dragons Conquer the Earth" movie I've ever seen. Worth a rental, though only dragon-slayers are likely to make a permanent place for it on their DVD racks.—TJN

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