By Gary Dowell
Wisely smaller in scope yet appropriately over-the-top, writer-director David Twohy and actor Vin Diesel’s return to the character who helped put both of them on the map some 15 years ago, Riddick is sci-fi pulp cheese that will satisfy fans if little else.
An escaped con with night vision eyes, Riddick became a surprise cult icon as an edgy supporting player in the under-the-radar Aliens knock-off Pitch Black (1999). The character was supposed to be killed off in the movie, but executives at Universal talked Twohy out of it, feeling he was more engaging than Radha Mitchell’s heroine (ouch) and no doubt seeing franchise potential.
Unfortunately, that potential has never been fully realized, thanks to the overblown big-budget event sequel The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), an ill-conceived story that attempted to jam the loner anti-hero into a Dune-esque epic that didn’t fit the character.
Riddick wisely jettisons that baggage early on, opening with our hero left for dead on misbegotten planet by the Necromonger horde he had been half-heartedly leading since the conclusion of Chronicles. The first act of the movie’s neatly parsed three-part structure plays out like a demented version of Robinson Crusoe as Riddick heals from his wounds and learns to deal with the less-than-friendly local fauna as he traverses a beautifully realized alien landscape. (Assuming your idea of beauty is The Discovery Channel in Hell.)
The second part sees Riddick playing a game of cat and mouse with two groups of bounty hunters after he calls for a ride by activating a distressed beacon: one led by the greedy and largely incompetent Santana (Jordi Molla); the other by no-nonsense professional Johns (Matt Nable), who has familial ties to one of less fortunate characters in Pitch Black, and thus wants some answers. After Riddick whittles down their numbers — and their egos — the perfunctory final act rehashes Pitch Black by pitting the survivors against a horde of vicious, slimy monsters (though these have a more believable life cycle).
The law of diminishing returns kicks in with each step, but not so much that it derails the movie. Twohy keeps the pacing tight for the most part, and the production design is suitably grimy, gritty, and believable, which is impressive considering the scant $38 million budget. Diesel went so far as to leverage his house to raise funds for the movie, and he is in fine form doing what he does best — menacing, strutting bad-assery — and he and Twohy are still able to make the stone-cold killer as likable a scoundrel as he could or should be.
There are others who get their moments, though. Molla is saddled with being a generic scumbag, but keeps it interesting, and Nable nails Johns’ complex and conflicting mix of vengefulness and do-right sense of professionalism. Dave Bautista (the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy) gets quite a bit of mileage as Santana’s right-hand man, as does Bokeem Woodbine. Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) does well in a limited role as Johns’ lieutenant, Dahl, the lone woman in a situation overflowing with testosterone. She can hold her own, but she’s strictly there for objectification and to get the Pussy Galore treatment, positioned as a lesbian who just hasn’t met the guy manly enough to change her mind.
It’s pulpy schlock in the vein of Escape From New York and Mad Max, etc., but it’s good schlock, and after a summer of bloated, self-serious, and often sub-par blockbusters it makes for some welcome and oh so slightly subversive counter-programming.