A lot less friendly than Puff (and nowhere near as mellifluous as Sean Connery in Dragonheart), the pyromaniacal beasts that rule the world in Reign of Fire have been waiting to exhale for centuries. As in the MTA-nightmare bug flick Mimic (surely inspired by the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in downtown Brooklyn), all hell breaks loose when these creatures stir from a long subterranean slumber—here they’re deep in the bowels of the London Underground. Twelve-year-old Quinn witnesses (and indeed may have precipitated) their awakening and suffers a further defining trauma when his mother, a construction-site engineer, becomes the first victim. The near total annihilation of the human race zips by in a newsreel montage. Cut to rural Northumberland, 2020, where a band of survivors have holed up in a castle under the benign rule of grown-up Quinn (Christian Bale, still sporting his American Psycho physique). In this quasi-medieval post-apocalypse (Mad Max, as delivered by The Postman), the sky is home to swooping fire-breathing aggressors, crops are razed before they can be harvested, and hoary George Lucas myths have outlived copyright-infringement laws (Star Wars skits are performed for tots as original bedtime stories).
American intervention soon arrives in the form of Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), a bald, tattooed, steroid-fortified, dragon-slaying redneck, accessorized with unlit cigar and whiskey flask. With the help of lovely helicopter pilot Alex (Izabella Scorupco), Van Zan is taking the fight to the air, in what amounts to a kamikaze mission for his evidently expendable men. The Brits regard this display of militarist bravado as so much hot air, but the Ugly American Abroad soldiers on undaunted, dressing up incoherent bellicosities in a folksy twang.
Lingering occasionally on the English countryside’s gloomy skies and rolling hills (oddly verdant given the live incinerators circling overhead), director Rob Bowman (the X-Files movie) rightly expends most of his energies on the dragons—their screen-filling wingspans, seismic throat-clearing, and literally killer halitosis. Reign of Fire peaks early with a vertiginous dogfight; thereafter, spotty CGI and a bamboozling plot conspire toward a colossal anticlimax. Having erected insurmountable obstacles for its fearless combatants, the film contrives a convenient exit via an evolutionary quirk that smacks of desperation: There’s only one male dragon, and so Quinn, Van Zan, and Alex set off for London to kill the lizard king. Briefly pussy-whipped, Quinn eventually gets to prove that he’s nobody’s bitch in this particular war on terror. Besides suggesting a remake of Beyond Thunderdome in which both leads are vying for the Tina Turner role, Reign of Fire can be read as a Tony Blair redemption fantasy: The British leader discovers his alpha-maleness while showing his American counterpart that (slightly) calmer heads do prevail.
A blitz of anti-authoritarian poses so feel-good you’d think someone was selling you sneakers, the German comedy What to Do in Case of Fire ponders the quandary of the retired anarchist and concludes that activism never went out of fashion. When a homemade Molotov cocktail explodes years after they first planted it in a West Berlin building, the former members of a radical-left collective get together to reminisce, take stock, and brainstorm about avoiding jail time. Two have remained steadfast to the cause (which no one bothers to articulate, though it involves snapping off Mercedes hood ornaments and is embodied by the Manic Street Preachers and Bends-era Radiohead on the soundtrack); the others (including Nadja Uhl, the East German factory worker in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Legend of Rita) have retreated to the lap of bourgeois comfort. One of the former rebels is now, appropriately, an advertising executive, but as with his compatriots, his materialist concerns evaporate long enough for him to Think Different and Just Do It. In other words: You may not be what you buy into, but you certainly are what you buy.