After Vin Diesel’s charismatic escaped convict Richard B. Riddick, introduced in the efficient 2000 sci-fi thriller Pitch Black, lost his way with a turgid, convoluted sequel (2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick), it made a lot of sense for Diesel and director David Twohy to bring their character back to basics. Riddick, familiar though it is, hits the reset button for this franchise and gets a lot right in doing so.
We rejoin Riddick after he’s been betrayed and left for dead on a sun-scorched alien world. Fighting for survival against a horde of formidable creatures, Riddick hones his animal instincts and becomes more dangerous than ever before. Soon, two ships arrive in search of Riddick; one carrying mercenaries determined to return with the convict’s head in a box, and the other bearing a crew with a different agenda and an unforeseen connection to his past. As the groups square off in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, lethal creatures descend upon the ships and render escape almost impossible.
If you’re a fan of the series, you will likely recognize a lot of Riddick from its predecessor Pitch Black. Though a few details in set-up are tweaked, much of the central plot is very similar, which is a shame considering how curious a character Riddick actually is. An antihero if there ever was one, he’s a murderous, enigmatic criminal on the run, with superhuman survival skills and incredible night vision. Unfortunately, Riddick fails to add anything to the character’s extensive backstory, opting instead to treat him as a kick-ass man of mystery.
Whereas Pitch Black was a sci-fi creature feature from the outset, Riddick is structured with three distinct acts. The first is a well-executed man-versus-wild survival story, with Riddick struggling against the vicious denizens of a desert planet. Diesel does an admirable job of carrying the film here, and he’s aided by some terrific special effects work in rendering both the alien creatures and landscape (shelling out the extra few bucks for IMAX is highly recommended). Twohy works with a smaller budget this time around, most of which he spends on bringing to life the planet’s diverse wildlife, but the film never feels cramped despite that restriction. There are dog-like creatures resembling a cross between a hyena and Bubastis from Watchmen, airborne raptors and, worst of all, terrifying giant scorpions, with lethal stingers and serious anger management issues. With Diesel firmly at the center of this first act, the film is both light and fun, without any of the weight of immediate Pitch Black-style doom and gloom.
When bounty hunters arrive in search of Riddick, the movie morphs into a tense stand-off, with Riddick dispatching characters one-by-one in hopes of securing a ship for himself. Too much of it is shot from the crew’s perspective for my liking (the film’s called Riddick, not Riddick & Pals), but Twohy builds the tension admirably nonetheless, and some of the characters are genuinely likable, a rarity for these kinds of movies. It’s gritty and enjoyable to watch.
Where Riddick hits its biggest snag is in its been-there-done-that final third, when our titular hero and the surviving mercenaries must team up to find a way off-world once those aforementioned scorpions start sinking their stingers into people. This final section of the film is dark, exciting and often exceedingly gory, but it’s also nothing new for this franchise. Luckily, the film’s supporting characters, improved effects and lighter tone set Riddick apart enough from Pitch Black to allow it to succeed on its own terms.
The most exciting part of Riddick is Twohy’s improved ability to balance brutal sci-fi horror violence, suspense and ridiculous characters. Pitch Black was excessively dark, both visually and plot-wise, while The Chronicles of Riddick was budget-bloated and muddily plotted. Riddick features some brutal gore, to be sure, but it’s blessed with a new set of smarts, canny enough to counterbalance that violence with a fun, nimble script and dynamic supporting cast.
The best of those new additions is Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff as the no-nonsense Dahl, a gun-toting bad-ass with an acerbic wit. Watching her alternately trade barbs and blows with the rest of the characters is one of the film’s most unexpected pleasures. Also strong is Matt Nable as the pained captain of the one of the ships, who appears to Riddick like a ghost from the past. And though Jordi Mollà hams it up as the loathsome, machete-wielding Santana, he also manages to infuse some of his scenes with surprising menace.
As the body count rises, Twohy wrings the maximum amount of suspense out of his set-pieces, utilizing dim lighting and fast cuts as much as possible. Riddick has some gloriously gory moments, but they only come after tense build-up and never feel gratuitous. The film also succeeds as an action showcase for Diesel. With his macho exterior and rumbling growl, Diesel has always been a fun actor to watch, but this film establishes him as a veritable action star even more than his Fast & Furious work, handing him some jaw-dropping action sequences and a plethora of funny one-liners. (After facing down a giant scorpion: “There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days… This was shaping up to be one of those.”).
Riddick is not a great movie by any stretch. Some characters make ridiculous decisions because the plot demands it, and the film’s ending is undeniably weak. However, Riddick knows what it wants to be, and it largely accomplishes its goals with energy, efficiency and great clarity of purpose.
After the long wait fans have had between this and the underwhelming Chronicles, some may be disheartened by how similar Riddick is to Pitch Black. It seems clear that Twohy and Diesel wanted to re-establish the character in light of the actor’s recent surge in popularity and could think of no better way to do so than updating their previous film with better effects, more interesting characters and an improved, playful tone. However, Riddick is pretty compelling proof that the pair were spot on in that diagnosis. Now, with the reintroductions now out of the way, it appears that the best adventures for the character may be yet to come. Riddick certainly has him off to a strong start.
Though it explores overtly familiar territory, Riddick shows that there's life in this franchise yet, improving on its predecessors with a potent blend of suspense, humor and newfound vitality.