Riddick is a necessary detour. Director David Twohy and star-slash-executive producer Vin Diesel have a master plan for their interstellar killer-with-a-code, but that plan is set aside to tell a smaller story that gets us back on track. Riddick was last seen in 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. Now, almost a decade later, the shiny-eyed tough guy is back and we’ve got to get to know him all over again.
Riddick picks up in the aftermath of Chronicles. Our titular anti-hero went from lone wolf survivor to commander-in-chief of a marauding space army, taking the mantle like some sort of far-future Genghis Khan. In doing so, he went and got himself civilized. Or as civilized as a guy like Riddick can ever be. He became soft, lost his edge. Enough so that the scheming Necromonger forces under his command are able to stage a coup and maroon Riddick on a hostile alien world.
The saving grace for this story is its commitment to growing Riddick’s universe.
These details come out in a series of flashback sequences interspersed across an opening half-hour in which we see Riddick get a handle on survival on a wild death planet. After escaping from hungry predators on a broken leg, then setting said broken leg, Riddick gets back in touch with his inner badass. You can almost hear an ’80s power ballad – let’s go with “Eye of the Tiger” – playing behind a montage of him taking on increasingly dangerous indigenous beings… and murdering the crap out of them.
It’s a slow, shuddering start for a plot that feels uneven throughout. Too many plot threads are left dangling or lead to unsatisfying conclusions. Riddick kidnaps and domesticates a CG alien dog, amounting to what starts as a funny and surprisingly touching sub-plot. Unfortunately, the effort is wasted on a cheap emotional ploy that is then leveraged into a darkly humorous killing. Riddick is a lot like Rome in that sense, except with him, all roads lead to murder.
Then there’s the two competing mercenary squads that move in for a grab at the generous bounty on Riddick’s head. One of them also happens to have a bit of revenge in his heart, thanks to a family connection with one of Riddick’s Pitch Black victims. The mercs don’t enter the story until the second act, however, and there’s little time to form a connection with any of them or their stories.
Twohy and Diesel, creative partners now, try to tell too much story in too short a time. Vital sub-plots, particularly the ones involving Riddick’s space dog and the vengeance-seeking merc, dangle limply in the alien world’s dry, dusty wind. Even with a running time that tops two hours, the story feels positively overstuffed. The universe that Riddick inhabits is still one that you feel compelled to learn more about, but there’s too much noise distracting newcomers from making any discoveries.
The saving grace for this story is its commitment to growing Riddick’s universe. We haven’t seen these characters since 2004. Many fans probably didn’t expect to see them again. Riddick detours away from the series’ bigger picture narrative that Twohy and Diesel have both spoken of publicly, but there’s heaps of fan service. Some of it – such as the extended intro – informs the general sense of unevenness, but it’s all in the name of eliciting grins from those that have been invested since 2000.
Twohy and Diesel, creative partners now, try to tell too much story in too short a time.
Diesel’s Riddick also continues to be one of the most fascinating characters in sci-fi, and the actor inhabits him like he does no other role. Matt Nable, along with Katee Sackhoff and Jordi Mollà, play their one-note characters well, but it’s never in question that you’re watching The Riddick Show.
This is a wanted killer and a dangerous man, but he lives according to a strict, almost honorable code. Twohy and Diesel present their most relatable take on the character yet in Riddick, and the star nails it. He’s definitely still not a guy you’d ever want to meet in a dark alley, but at least now you can be relatively sure that he won’t gut you with a curved blade, so long as you stay out of his way.
All of that fan service comes at a cost, however. A newcomer to the Riddick movies will probably feel lost. Boss Johns (Nable) tells us that he’s the father of Pitch Black‘s William J. Johns (Cole Hauser), but the few scenes setting that up aren’t enough to form a connection for someone that has no frame of reference. The same goes for the final, action-driven chunk of the movie, which is a very obvious homage to the 13-year-old film. Like all of Riddick’s other issues, time is the big obstacle to presenting all of this in a digestible way.
The narrative ambition for this saga continues to be huge. It’s clear that Diesel and Twohy have more to come, and that they want to get back to telling the story of Riddick’s search for his homeworld of Furya. Riddick is proof of that, uneven execution and all. This one is unapologetically for the fans, for better and for worse.
(Images and video © Universal Studios. All rights reserved.)
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