I was going to call Riddick one of the more unlikely sequels to come along recently, but honestly I’ve stopped keeping track. Eschewing the world building and mythology of the previous installment, Riddick returns to the character’s Pitch Black origins with a smaller scale story. It is a major improvement, as this mode better showcases the talents of Vin Diesel and series director David Twohy.
The first segment of the film relies heavily on Vin Diesel’s voiceover sharing Riddick’s internal monologue after finding himself stranded alone on a harsh planet. After discovering a distress beacon, two teams of bounty hunters show up, led by Santana (Jordi Mollà) and Boss Johns (Matt Nable) and a revenge/survival plot plays out, with Riddick being the thing that goes bump in the night.
Riddick doesn’t have the hallmarks of great movies, but it does draw on the DNA of genre filmmaking, and is the rare film that mimics comic book style storytelling. The audience is dropped into the middle of the action with just enough backstory to make things interesting. The flashbacks here function as panel notations, giving new viewers just enough to whet their appetite for the larger world out there.
Cribbing key pieces of Predator and Aliens, this film places the character back in the glossy B-movie realm where it belongs. The smaller scale, with one locale and a clear objective for the protagonist demonstrates that stakes feel high when the meaning of the character’s success or failure is stark. By sidestepping all of the things that made the second film, The Chronicles of Riddick, both confusing and unmemorable (alas we only get once scene with Karl Urban’s eyeliner), Riddick pays off on the reasons people show up to see it.
The structure of the film is smart enough to recognize what it needs to do and accomplishes it. Everything that is set up comes back later, giving this thriller a tightness that feels accomplished against the bloated blockbusters of three months ago. One interesting thing the film does is that once the bounty hunters show up, Riddick himself is relegated to the periphery. Spending time with these other characters, and their fear of Riddick’s reputation goes a long way in organically growing his legend.
Vin Diesel always strikes me someone who tries really hard to be cool. With his physical impressiveness and geeky interests, it’s not something he should have to worry about, yet in every role he seems like he is trying to be cool. Nowhere else does it work as well as Riddick, which has many key moments dedicated to showing just how much of a badass this character is, whether it is communicating with a space dog by growling or resetting his own broken foot with some rocks. These demonstrative winks to the audience are endemic to the genre, and Twohy uses them effectively.
However, the film does have a singular blemish, the treatment of its female characters. There are two in the film, and one is used only to (redundantly) demonstrate the evilness of our antagonist. The other, played by Katee Sackhoff, is openly lesbian and is sexually molested by Santana, objectified by Riddick, and ensures misogynistic treatment by the script. Kudos to Sackhoff for giving the character enough edges to deflect most of these problems, but everyone saving the most ignorant viewers will notice.
While this presents a problem, as it keeps me from outright loving the film, I’m not sure it is enough to condemn it either. Fans of Diesel and the character will surely love Riddick, but there is plenty of room for non-fans who want an unpretentious take on a foreign world.
Riddick opens today in Philly theaters.