We open on our hero, battled and bloodied, making his way across a sun-scorched alien world. In his search for drinkable water, we see Riddick (Vin Diesel) snap his broken leg back into place, bolt a metal splint into bare flesh, and hide from a pack of hungry (alien) dogs in a stagnant pond, totally stoic and still as lesser aquatic predators eat away at him. Riddick presents its titular hero as some futuristic demigod, making the macho feel a little more mythic than cliché. The opening moments of this film are fun as hell. The beats are engaging and require no explanation, just a cool hero up against a terrifying world. But then Riddick opens his mouth and all the mystery comes crashing down.
Riddick is the third cinematic instalment for the interplanetary outlaw, following his debut in sci-fi/thriller Pitch Black in 2000 and The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004. After conquering the evil empire known as the “Necromongers” (yep, that’s the name they went with) in that very forgettable follow-up, some exposition is probably forgivable in setting the scene for this much more grounded adventure. Thankfully the voice over and silly flashbacks don’t linger and we soon get back to the fun stuff, but it must be noted how quickly this film can go from goofy fun to taking itself too seriously.
Riddick is broken into three sections. The first chronicles Riddick’s aforementioned struggle against nature, ending with him hitting an emergency beacon and calling in two groups of mercenaries. This second switches things up and becomes a thriller with the hero as a shadowy hunter, told from the view of the two clans as they bicker with each other and try to fend off Riddick’s stealthy attacks. Thirdly (and going off the trailer you would think this section was the entire film) is the all-out action piece where Riddick teams up with the surviving mercs to escape from a swarm of native monsters. The movie’s greatest success is in these three acts building into each other. Having seen Riddick’s resourcefulness on his own, you buy him as the terrifying force of nature in the second act. Likewise, when the creatures begin their attack, there’s no doubt it’s Riddick that is saving all these people. The film is ridiculous and the hero omnipotent in his badassery, but it’s all done with a wink and a nod that give levity to what would otherwise be a total vanity project.
That’s not to say that the supporting cast are just fodder. The best part of this film is watching these characters argue with each other and bounce off of Riddick’s sheer awesomeness. Santana (Jordi Molla) is particularly fun as the leader of the less honourable group. His introduction shows his malevolence and clearly sets him up as the villain. But as his ineptitude quickly builds he becomes little more than an increasingly entertaining punch line to Riddick’s threats. Boss Johns (Matt Nable) gives Riddick a little more character depth and acts as the link between this film and Pitch Black, which turns out to be a nice little b-plot rather than an unnecessary anchor. Dahl (Katee Sackhoff) was a little less successful a character, and I couldn’t help to feel that she was only there to give Riddick a woman at the end of his plight. It’s not so much that she was any less interesting, Sackhoff was perfectly fine in the role, but when the writers introduce her as a lesbian seemingly only so Riddick’s eventual conquest would be all the more impressive, it made me a little uncomfortable.
Riddick trades very successfully by playing it all for laughs, but every now and again it just goes too far. There are times when Diesel is horribly wooden, and some of the dialogue is downright cringe-worthy. It’s a hard balance to strike, and it’s difficult to foresee what concepts will read as whacky fun and what will make the audience groan. There were some inclusions (the aforementioned flashback, chief among them) that should have been obvious cuts. Sadly, the misses can be more obvious than the hits, and for someone going into Riddick with a cynical attitude it would be way too easy to overlook what’s great about this movie.
A lot of big action flicks seem get a pass for being “dumb fun”, utilizing their larger than life concepts as a crutch for poor writing and underdeveloped characters. Riddick on the other hand embraces its absurdity, crafting a story and setting that allow the inherent silliness of the character to blossom into something special. The X factor separating Riddick from disaster is the clear love and enthusiasm David Twohy (Writer/Director) and Vin Diesel have for the character. This film is bursting with a personality that can only come from a deep understanding of what makes a character work.
My expectations for Riddick were fairly low going in, but I ended up having a total blast. Twohy is methodical in giving Riddick a legendary stature that sits somewhere between Tarzan and Snake Plissken. It’s totally goofy and completely over the top, which is what makes it so fun. Let yourself be indulged and you’re in for a great time.