When discussing actors who make physical changes in order to play a movie role, most people point to the 60 pounds put on by Robert De Niro for Raging Bull. On the other side of this coin is what audiences saw in The Machinist when it came out in theaters last October. Christian Bale, in order to play insomniac Trevor Reznik, looked positively emaciated after having lost 60 pounds for the role. That's commitment to your craft, and I expect nothing less from Bale as he's one of my favorite actors. But I have to wonder if he might have been inspired by a past costar when making such a complete physical change.
Which brings me to Reign of Fire. The year is 2020, and it's the end of the world. Bale plays Quinn, the leader of a community of refugees holed up inside a derelict castle in northern England. The world didn't end by nuclear annihilation or biological plague, but rather the re-emergence of dragons. Once the first one was unleashed beneath London, they multiplied like mad and scorched the earth. Quinn's people are struggling and starting to lose hope when a line of tanks rumble towards their gates. Led by Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), they are an American group of Nation Guard troops who have traveled across the ocean to find the spot where it all started, for they have a plan to end the reign of dragons for good.
I'm willing to bet that many people who first saw McConaughey in the trailer for Reign of Fire could not peg him as the same man who played Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill. McConaughey is shaved bald with a scruffy goatee and chomping on a cigar butt. He wears a sleeveless bomber jacket, which shows off the numerous tattoos on his incredibly muscular arms. He's about as far from the Mississippi lawyer as you can get (well, except for the cigar).
His performance matches his looks as he bravely leads his men, and he isn't afraid to charge straight into the danger when he's needed. He strikes a sharp contrast with Quinn, who is quieter in his leadership than Van Zan. Both actors approach their roles as two men who want the same thing but have radically different approaches to accomplish it. They are also shown to be brave leaders who care deeply about the people under their charge. As a result, Van Zan doesn't come off as a megalomaniac and Quinn is not portrayed as weak.