Guest Movie Review: Riddick
For the record, I really don’t think The Chronicles of Riddick was that bad a movie. Yes, the 2004 sci-fi sequel to minor hit Pitch Black certainly had its share of problems, most notably the overburden of multiple plots that never quite managed to build into the epic tale it was meant to be. Director David Twohy, who worked with star Vin Diesel on both titles, simply tried to do too much in his big-budget effort (complete with being forced to push for a PG-13 rating instead of its predecessor’s hard R), and the result was jumbled despite a stellar cast, great special effects and a likeable, engaging main character. In fact, it could be argued that Chronicles was the reason behind Diesel’s subsequent career regression; he went practically unseen for years before the Fast & Furious franchise righted the ship once more. If trying to do too much is what sunk Chronicles, then Twohy has definitely learned his lesson: he gives us a simpler, monster-and-personality-fueled romp in this weekend’s Riddick.
In Twohy’s first feature since 2009’s The Perfect Getaway, former convict and murderer Richard B. Riddick (Diesel) has been usurped by his Necromonger army (which he took control of at the end of Chronicles), and has been left for dead on a dangerous planet. After accepting that he had committed the greatest crime of all – “becoming civilized” – he uses the planet as a tool to refine his killer instinct and become the dangerous man he once was. Soon his respite is interrupted by the arrival of two ships; bounty hunters have arrived, intent on collecting Riddick as their prize, albeit for two different reasons. But there’s something much more dangerous hidden under the surface of this planet, and despite their differences, the three sides find they have to work together if they want any chance of survival. Of course, they’ll have to play by Riddick’s rules.
It’s obvious Twohy and Diesel are referencing themselves – the plot is essentially a rehashing of Pitch Black – but it works on a few levels. For one, it’s great to see Riddick back in action; though his takes on Dominic Toretto and Xander Cage are arguably as strong, Diesel was born to play Riddick. The character is also just fun to watch in action, walking the fine line between anti-hero and outright sociopath with precision. Diesel has seen his star shine brightly in recent years, and while he’ll always be relegated to specific genres, it’s great to see him return to a role that is as appreciated by him as it is by audiences.
The simplicity of the script is also a factor after the rightful drubbing that Chronicles received, though that’s also where things begin to fall apart. Because of the gigantic disparity between the beginning of Riddick and the end of its predecessor, Twohy is forced to give us the whole story as to what brought the former Necromonger Lord Marshall so low. This entry takes up a full third of the movie (or at least feels that way), and is full of Filmmaking 101 no-no’s, the most egregious being the excessive narration by Diesel. Then, when it leaves us in a place where the director can finally get back to telling the story, we’re ready to accept just about anything… except what finally makes it to the screen.
See, while Twohy is trying to get us back to a simpler time in Riddick, his final product doesn’t feel quite as steady as we would hope. That over-long entry leads us to the obligatory point-of-view from the side of the mercenaries, two groups whose sometimes-fun interactions are stymied by an utter lack of characterization and development. While their banter does prove more-or-less entertaining and is delivered by a moderately-talented cast, you can’t help but feel that these actors were given their jobs based on their affordability, and not on their actual talent. Very few are known actors, and even those (Jordi Molla, Dave Bautista, Bokeem Woodbine and Katee Sackhoff) are really only known to certain demographics. It’s not quite like Pitch Black, whose cast was full of intriguing and memorable personalities, and whose characters’ actions and motivations actually made sense. Here, there’s very little logic or even clear thought to how the characters act; they’re going through motions and tropes, popping out filler until Riddick can take center stage. There are two examples that defy the fates of everyone not played by Diesel, however. One is Karl Urban, returning as the evil Vaako and stealing his moment, albeit in just one scene; the other is Matt Nable as one of the mercenary leaders (for spoilers’ sake I’ll avoid naming him), whose genuine characterization makes up for the actor’s overly-dry delivery.
When the third act hits, it’s exactly the kind of ultra-violent, against-all-odds monster-fest the fans have been waiting for. It goes by far too quickly, however, rushed through indelicate pacing so as to get the whole thing in under the two hour mark. It even has that utterly flat, unbelievable ending that is supposed to open things up for the next sequel, but never actually leaves anything resembling a conclusion. Riddick does a great job expanding upon the universe that was established in the earlier movies, and it carries sufficient connections to the first two movies to appease long-time fans. However, Twohy just doesn’t seem to be in that same mindset he enjoyed on the set of Pitch Black. Perhaps it was that first movie’s reliance on the darkness that overcame his deficiencies as an artist (although I remember still being fairly impressed in the well-lit first act). Perhaps the siren call of CGI blurred his vision. Maybe creating big-budget projects changed the way he approaches filmmaking. Perhaps he just ran out of ideas while penning Riddick’s screenplay. Whatever the reason, he’s definitely the weak link in this space-faring adventure, and his failures mean Riddick never quite reaches the heights set by its progenitor. Riddick is still a lot of fun, but more in “Syfy movie of the week” campiness than actually being all that great (the supporting cast and the “special” effects hammer this point home well). I really am glad to see this character back on the big screen. I just wish he could have been given a better script than the underwhelming one provided by his director.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. His regular reviews can be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson. (http://latestissue.blogspot.com)