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Fire-breathing dragons stir up trouble in the battle-torn Earth of the future.

It's hard not to like a picture that has as much cool stuff as does Reign of Fire, in which the last few humans on Earth battle fire-breathing dragons in England of the near future.

In this movie's bag of post-apocalyptic goodies are massive computer-animated dragons, of course, and all the nitro-napalm expectoration that goes with 'em. But it also boasts a decrepit castle, military tanks, a helicopter, automatic weapons, fist fights, heavy artillery, stunts with horses, underground tunnels, motorcycles, computer-imaging tchochtkes, extreme sky-diving, crossbow arrows with explosive points and a bona fide medieval battle ax.

Did I mention the dragons and the fire? There's a lot of that.

Directed by Rob Bowman (who last helmed The X-Files movie) and starring Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale--both looking more hirsute and tougher than ever and chewing scenery as if it were Raisinettes--Reign of Fire is an ingenious combination of fantasy and science-fiction schlock at their entertaining best.

Bowman and his screenwriting bullpen have cobbled together a mostly engaging story that attempts to logically map out what tomorrow's world would be like if dragons were real.

Reign of Fire is also one of those rare thoughtful action movies in the tradition of sci-fi speculation of the 1970s--Planet of the Apes, Westworld, Rollerball, Soylent Green et al. But this movie's biggest conceptual debts are owed to the Mad Max films and to the cheesy special effects of Ray Harryhausen's adventure fantasies.

In the year 2020, most of humankind and civilization have been wiped out over the course of only a dozen years by dragons. The beasts woke up from millennia of underground hibernation to toast most major metropolitan areas of the world.

In an abandoned castle in Northumberland, England, a few straggling humans band together to try to survive, in spite of the frequent dragon attacks. Their leader is the snarling but humane Quinn (Bale), who nurses old issues with dragons. As a child he was there when the first one re-awakened and took wing in a London subway, killing in the process Quinn's construction-engineer mother (played in flashbacks by Alice Krige, best known as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Comic relief, in the form of not-unpleasant quips in the face of danger, is provided by a charming Gerard Butler as Quinn's second-in-command and best friend. Savvy filmgoers will correctly guess this character's eventual fate.

Rolling up the road is a motley armored unit of Army "irregulars" from the United States. Led by McConaughey's grizzled Van Zan, these brutal characters are first feared to be marauders. But they are actually dragon slayers, hunting the big daddy dragon so they may put him out of their misery.

McConaughey has bulked up impressively, and with a shaved head, scrubby facial hair and tattoos, his Van Zan comes on as nothing less than a Stone Cold Steve Austin of the future, ready to open a can of whup-ass on the next available dragon. For added effect, Van Zan chomps ceaselessly on a cigar stub, not unlike good ol' Sgt. Fury, and he seems to have a Capt. Ahab-Moby Dick sort of relationship going on with the top-dog dragon.

Accompanying Van Zan's howling commandos is ace chopper pilot Alex (Izabella Scorupco, trying without success to mask her Polish-Swedish accent), who is an alluring blend of Michelle Pfeiffer, Natassja Kinski and Ingrid Bergman in dirty face and flying helmet. She brings a glint to Quinn's eye, but neither can do much about it because all the time dragons are burning the castle and its surrounds to cinders.

Naturally, Quinn and Van Zan engage in a series of "Quién es mas macho?" confrontations over who should lead the tenuous Brit-Yank alliance and what the folks should do about the dragons that regularly swoop by sharing their trademark indigestion with the humans.

But the well-planned and tautly orchestrated manner in which Van Zan and his crew go about slaying dragons is a technological marvel of movie logistics that makes, say, Harry Potter's Quidditch match look like unintelligible cinematic mush. The action is clean, easy to follow and beautiful, and always nicely in contrast to the perpetual blue twilight that suffuses the screen for most of this movie.

And you can be sure the dragons are some mean S.O.B.s, not cuddly as in the animated Pete's Dragon or eloquent like the one Sean Connery voiced in Dragonheart, nor are they sympathetic, like their Japanese cousin Godzilla. It turns out that these bad boys were the real reason the dinosaurs died--they torched all the giant lizards, and the resulting ashes brought the Ice Age. Glad we cleared that up.

Anyway, these flying CGI dragons can sometimes appear too jittery, as if shot in stop-motion animation, but usually they glide, horrifying and lithe, down from the sky for convincing close-ups. And at one point, the camera lingers almost lovingly over the spilled entrails of a dead one that, even lying on the ground, still dwarfs Quinn.

The rushed third-act showdown takes a toll on the narrative, making the resolution seem a tad artificial, maybe even forced. But, who cares? Clearly for Reign of Fire, it's better to burn up than fade away.

Reign of Fire
Rated NR

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