I’m still hard pressed to think of a more misguided sequel than 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, writer-director David Twohy’s epically craptacular follow-up to his nifty little 2000 B-picture Pitch Black. The original film’s stripped-down, close-quartered nastiness wasn’t just one of the best John Carpenter movies John Carpenter never made, it also unleashed upon an unsuspecting world Vin Diesel: Action Hero.
In hindsight, this may sound like madness, but I can testify that at the time, Diesel was actually a respected, up-and-coming young talent, delivering sensitive supporting turns in Saving Private Ryan, Boiler Room and voicing The Iron Giant. But as it turns out, he really just wanted to be Sly Stallone. The preening, swarthy intergalactic bad-ass Richard B. Riddick—something like a metrosexual Snake Plissken—was Diesel’s ticket to the big time.
Alas, the mid-aughts were a dark time for science fiction sagas, culturally mired in the self-serious labrynthine plotting of Matrix sequels, Star Wars prequels and those interminable Tolkien adaptations. Attempting to ret-con their creation as a sort of Conan the Barbarian in space, Twohy and Diesel’s back-breakingly ambitious Chronicles of Riddick ditched all of Pitch Black’s modest charms and suffered elephantitis of the mythology glands. There was much ado about a prophecy in which Riddick ascended to Lord Marshal of the Necromongers, now a warrior king leading people through something called the Underverse. It also had Judi Dench.
The movie bombed, but Diesel wouldn’t let it go. Can’t really blame him, as it’s easy to see why he loves playing Riddick. A healthy percentage of screen time in every Riddick movie is devoted to supporting characters standing around talking about how awesome Riddick is, and how terrified they are of Riddick. Then Riddick eventually makes a grand entrance and doesn’t expend much effort killing people in various clever and amusing ways.
Diesel’s patience and perseverance paid off. First, he traded a cameo in Tokyo Drift in exchange with the studio for ownership of the character. The unprecedented ascendance of the Fast & Furious franchise to critically-lauded blockbuster status meant now was time to strike—even if Diesel had to kick in some of his own cash to cover the budget—which is why nine years later, we’ve got Riddick.
Notice the absence of chronicles this time around. It’s a much leaner, more entertaining piece of work. The new film begins, quite drolly, with Riddick left for dead beneath a pile of rubble on a frightfully hostile alien planet. A space vulture attempts to pick his bones, and he promptly chokes it to death, growling via voice-over narration that “this ain’t nothing new.” A brisk flashback for everybody who either never saw or mercifully forgot the second picture catches you up on the bold strokes, then cheekily discards the laborious mythology altogether. It’s Diesel and Twohy’s cheeky way of saying: “Hey, remember all that shit? Sorry. Let’s move on.”
Riddick is split into three clearly delineated acts, and the first is by far the best. Stranded and wounded in an environment where “the whole damn planet wanted a piece of me,” we watch Diesel spend a dialogue-free half hour or so foraging for food, tending to his wounds, dispatching all manner of icky serpentine monsters. For a while, I was hoping the whole movie would be Jack London of Mars.
Inevitably, other humans show up. Two teams of bickering bounty hunters arrive to collect our notorious outlaw. The first crew is led by Jordi Molla, giving one of those rapey, fingernails-on-the-blackboard performances he’s been inflicting on audiences since Bad Boys II. The second, more professional bunch has Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff playing a lesbian so she can say lines like “I don’t fuck guys. I fuck them up.”
Diesel retreats to the shadows for this longish middle act, the hunted slowly picking off his hunters, with too much time spent in cramped rooms with bad actors reciting worse dialogue. It’s only when all those aforementioned icky serpentine monsters come crawling back out of the woodwork that Riddick gets down and boogies, essentially remaking Pitch Black, which is fine by me. I sheepishly admit that over the years, I’ve grown inexplicably fond of Diesel’s fashion model poses and doofus line readings. (Here’s a guy who orders everything with extra cheese—especially his dialogue.)
Gory as hell, Riddick is an Aliens-styled barrage of creepy crawlies and shifting alliances presided over by Diesel, clearly having the time of his life. Why wouldn’t he? In this movie, there’s an entire galaxy full of people who want to talk about nothing but what an astonishing and amazing character Richard B. Riddick is. The star is thrilled to bask in their awed admiration. Even if he had to pay for it himself.