A real Travolta

Film - Philip Kerr coins a phrase for hugely expensive second-rate duds

Penny dreadfuls were inexpensive novels of violent adventure that were especially popular in Victorian England. By Edwardian times, these were known as shilling shockers. For those too young to remember the shilling, this was a coin worth 5p in modern money. The decimal coinage has been a great disappointment to those of us who remember the tanner and the bob. There is not one coin in our pockets today that has attained the status of a popular sobriquet; and it was not just our spending power that was depleted by the introduction of the "p" back in 1971, it was also the English language. Money may talk, but only in America, where nickels, dimes and quarters still exist.

Here in England, there is no poetry to be found in our metric coinage. Which is a great shame, because I'm thinking that there ought to be a word that covers the modern filmic equivalent of the penny dreadful, albeit one that costs a more princely sum, such as $50m. Reign of Fire is just such a movie.

Reign of Fire starts in present-day London. It looks like Mad Max meets Doctor Who. Twelve-year-old Quinn watches as his mother, a construction engineer, inadvertently wakes an enormous sleeping dragon from its centuries-long slumber. Ten minutes into the movie, we are being asked to believe that 20 years have passed, and Earth has been reduced to cinders by the fire-breathing beast and its pyromaniac, flying offspring. Small communities of survivors eke out a meagre existence, with one eye on the sky. Into the midst of one such Northumberland community, managed by Quinn (Christian Bale), comes a hotshot American, Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), who says he has a way to kill the beasts and save mankind. Both of these actors appear bulked up with muscle like pocket-sized Schwarzeneggers - McConaughey goes one better, having learnt to grunt like Stallone - and give the most wretched performances of their neurologically challenged lives. The audience I watched this with hooted with derision.

Reign of Fire is written by Terry Hayes, whose previous credits would lead one to suppose that he knows more about writing stinkers than Bialystock and Bloom (in The Producers); and yet his prosaic name (matching his equally prosaic talent) hardly lends itself to coining a neologism for cinema at its most irredeemable.

On the face of it, a Zanuck would seem like a better word for a truly dreadful Hollywood film: after all Richard Zanuck, who produced Reign of Fire, is also the man who brought you last year's Planet of the Apes and, before that, such turkeys as Chain Reaction, Deep Impact and the totally ludicrous The Island. The only problem is that Richard Zanuck is also the man who brought us The Sound of Music, Jaws and The Sting. Richard Zanuck is the son of the famous Darryl F Zanuck, who built 20th Century Fox in the 1930s, producing classic films too numerous to mention. Despite the obvious attraction of a surname that rhymes with "suck", it hardly seems fair to make Zanuck's name synonymous with all that sucks in modern Hollywood.

Perhaps the best indicator as to what to call a hugely expensive dud like this one might come from Hollywood itself, which annually bestows its Golden Raspberries on the worst movies of the year. By far the most dreadful movie, in the 22-year history of the awards, has been Battlefield Earth. Based on a science fiction novel by L Ron Hubbard, the movie starred Mr and Mrs John Travolta, who are reported to be currently travelling around the world on Travolta's private Boeing 747, which is being piloted by the great man himself.

With an Italian name made up of a preposition that looks like a corruption of the number three and a noun meaning "time", "Travolta" carries with it the implicit promise of something excessive, of something more expensive than double-time at any rate. Given his proven track record for appearing in many of the biggest turkeys of the past 20 years, I can't think of a better word than Travolta for any dreadful movie costing scores of millions of dollars that looked as though it was always going to fail, right from the very minute that the screenwriter walked into the producer's office to make his pitch, and said hello.

So, let it be said, Reign of Fire is that second-rate, dreadful thing. Reign of Fire is a Travolta.

Reign of Fire (12) is released on 23 August