Film Review: Riddick

In his third and best “chronicle,” Vin Diesel’s tough, gruff deep-space rogue does what he does best: fighting hordes of hungry aliens in a hostile extraterrestrial environment.

In the nine years since he last appeared as intergalactic escaped convict Richard B. Riddick, Vin Diesel has spent most of his time in four redundant Fast and the Furious sequels. That’s reason enough to welcome his return to the role that launched his career. That this belated follow-up to the disappointing The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) is arguably this intermittent series’ best outing yet is the bonus. More to the point, it’s a return to form: It puts Diesel’s lean, mean sociopath back in his comfort zone—another black-and-white, life-or-death dilemma that will require brute force, sharpened survival skills and, most importantly, a killer instinct. To that recipe, Diesel provides the secret ingredient: that arrogant, cynical, baritone panache.

To appreciate this film you don’t have to be acquainted with Riddick’s mythology—but, of course, knowing the backstory does add resonance. And what a long, strange voyage it has been: A convicted murderer with a million-dollar price on his head (double if he’s brought back dead), Riddick has survived a shipwreck on a desolate planet swarming with flying predators (Pitch Black), then waged a one-man war on a race of genocidal conquerors, killing their Darth Vaderish leader in the process (The Chronicles of Riddick). After all that, one might wonder what remaining battle Riddick might find worthy of fighting. One need look no further than right here.

Riddick opens with its bloody, broken, half-dead hero regaining consciousness amid the craggy rocks of a barren desert world. By the time the film is 15 minutes old, he’s already been attacked by four different species of carnivores—each more fearsome than the last. It all comes at him and at us so fast that we hardly have time to ask: How did he wind up here? Who has apparently left him for dead?

Writer-director David Twohy (the Riddick films’ first and only auteur) doesn’t keep us in the dark too long before clearing up the mystery, with a flashback that explains everything. No spoilers here: Suffice it to say that the sequence provides a satisfying bridge between where we last saw Riddick and where he finds himself in this film.

But that bridge is about the only thing that Riddick has in common with its immediate (albeit long-ago) predecessor, Chronicles—a sprawlingly planet-hopping, would-be epic that, in its overreaching bigness, busyness and loudness, sledgehammered where Pitch Black slashed. But no more epic sprawl here: For the most part, Riddick is a return to the tone and scope of the Alien-esque Pitch Black—only with more in-your-face, CGI alien monsters, a higher body count and a harder-core MPAA rating. Think Pitch Black on steroids.

The film’s starkly minimalist, almost dialogue-less first act is all man vs. primordial nature, as Riddick discovers that, with the help of an indigenous sort of super-wolf he raised from puppyhood, he can survive, and even prevail in this world. Or so he thinks. Then he makes a discovery that lets him know that nobody has a prayer of surviving what’s about to happen on this planet.

That’s about the same time that Riddick happens upon an abandoned outpost, where he sends a signal into space that attracts the attention of two separate groups of nearby bounty hunters—one decidedly mercenary-military, the other your basic scum of the solar system. Why would the future’s most wanted man want to announce his location to all these seasoned man-hunters? Simple. He needs a way off this planet of death. “This isn’t him calling for help,” it dawns on one of the brighter bounty hunters. “It’s him calling a taxi.”

And just how is he going to wrest one of the spaceships from all these cutthroat killers? That’s the whole thrust of this movie’s midsection, during which Riddick plays cat-and-mouse from the outskirts of the outpost while, inside, the rival teams of bounty hunters are fighting among themselves for alpha-male supremacy. The not-so-subtle irony of this tug of war is that the bounty hunter who comes out on top is the sole female, from the team with the uniforms. It makes perfect sense that she’s played by Katee Sackhoff (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Longmire”), in what is probably her most kickass role in a career full of them. She nails it, of course. There’s a reason that fanboys worship her.

The whole Riddick vs. the bounty hunters face-off would seem to reinforce the idea that, in Riddick’s universe, it’s the human types who pose the greatest threat to living happily ever after. But as this film’s trailers have already trumpeted, it isn’t about the people this time. It’s about the imminent onslaught of the slimiest horde of reptile-scorpion people-eaters since Sigourney Weaver went back to that other desolate planet and smacked down that alien queen. And if this film’s climactic siege doesn’t have you at least sitting up a little straighter in your seat, you probably shouldn’t be wasting any more time sitting through supersized B-movies that fall into the horror/thriller genre.

After the commercial and critical epic fail of The Chronicles of Riddick, conventional wisdom had it that Riddick movies had no future as a franchise. But given the overall strength of this very solid comeback, there is now no reason not to entertain the possibilities of further adventures (as long as they don’t involve a return to the Chronicles “Underverse”). Diesel has already said that he’s on board for the two more that David Twohy reportedly wants to make. And if it takes Twohy another near-decade to come up with a decent enough idea, so be it. We’ll be waiting, with rebooted anticipation.