You have to admit, it's a hot prospect. In X-Files director Rob Bowman's latest, dragons aren't merely creatures of myth, they're a humanity-squelching fact. Laying dormant for a few hundred millennia at a time, they only awake to scour the world for food, destroying anything in their way. It's their planet, and they're the ones at the top of the food chain. Clever, this: moving an all-too-often mishandled fantasy monster into a not-too-distant-future setting makes Reign Of Fire a summer movie with a different - you could say chargrilled - flavour, that's more Mad Max than Jurassic Park.
Christian Bale gets his first out-and-out hero role as the bristly, hot-blooded Quinn, leader of a rag-tag bunch of survivors who scrape a living in a misty, ash-coated Northumberland. Civilization's been destroyed, governments have been toppled, and the nukes have done more damage to the people launching them than their scaly foes. Enter the ultra-buff, Ahab-like Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), an American who claims to be a dragonslayer and says he knows the secret of bringing the beasts down. As far as he's concerned, it's time to fight back.
In true post-apocalyptic tradition, everything's lo-tech, dirty and downbeat, with the action restricted to a few smouldering wasteland locations. It's certainly atmospheric, but it does have the problem of making Reign Of Fire a rather monotone movie: seen one burnt-out car wreck or building, you've seen 'em all. But who cares about that, you may say, when there's dragons to feast your eyes on?
Well, therein lies a more fundamental problem. The dragons look great, swooping about like Boeing-sized raptors on huge, tattered wings, spitting their "natural napalm" with impressive force. But the posters promised us dragons en masse, engaging in aerial combat with fleets of choppers and trashing cities Independence Day-style. Disappointingly, we only see such a horde for one, brief moment (for the rest of the movie the monsters attack strictly one at a time), while the city-frying scenes are never shown, only represented on a few newspaper clippings and magazine covers. Oh, and there's only one helicopter in the entire film. What a jip.
At least there're a few decent, nerve-twanging action sequences to compensate. The movie's peak comes when one dragon takes on a trio of skydiving, net-flinging slayers, the entire battle played out at terminal velocity, while the big-boss dragon climax delivers the requisite monster-monster thrills.
Even so, it still feels like Bowman's denied us a couple of proper, tension-cranking set-pieces, while neither the script nor character interplay are inventive enough. As a result, Reign Of Fire fails to rise above its obvious budgetary restrictions and achieve the same cult sci-fi status of, say, Pitch Black. Go, see, and be occasionally thrilled, but don't expect a scorcher.
Less "Here be dragons," more "Where be dragons?" Reign Of Fire doesn't deliver on the promise of its posters. What we have instead is Mad Max versus monsters. Which ain't all bad.