September 5, 2013

Review: Twohy & Diesel’s RIDDICK Hardens the Eff Up

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What are you looking for out of your experience with Riddick? Because if you’re expecting a Shakespearean quality narrative with nuanced characters and subtlety you should just go ahead and get the fuck out. Riddick isn’t for you, it’s not that film. There will be no award-winning performances, no masterful accolades thrown at the script – no, critical acclaim will not come easy to David Twohy’s new film. In lieu of any that, Richard B. Riddick will build a giant switchblade made out of alien bones and he will use that to kill other aliens.

It’s give and take, people.

Screen Shot 2013-09-05 at 12.57.49 PMWhat I adore about this, literally Vin Diesel’s passion project, is how lean and straightforward his latest go-round in the goggles is. The success of 2000’s Pitch Black didn’t rest solely on the Riddick character. In fact, Vin Diesel’s performance served almost as frosting on the cake of an already solid framework. Pitch Black is intensely effective as a science-fi/monster mash-up removed of Diesel’s memorable supporting role. That Diesel and writer/director Twohy fell in love with Riddick and saw enough in him to spin him off into his own franchise was a happy byproduct. But, as we learned in 2004’s Chronicles of Riddick, expanding the scope of the character and his surrounding universe would prove challenging.

For as much as I loved Pitch Black, my problems with Chronicles gave me pause regarding this new Riddick. Top to bottom, Chronicles did more harm than good to whatever plans were laid in regards to this character’s franchise prospects. The Riddick in Chronicles was out of his element – the only interesting settings being the ones we found him in and the one we left him at. Twohy’s script made the mistake of overestimating both Riddick and the actor playing him. Diesel’s isn’t the kind of charisma that carries a film, as he’s best when playing off more capable actors. The dangerous badass of Pitch Black was reduced to a caring, sensitive, misunderstood Vin Diesel – the worst kind of Vin Diesel, really.

That, and the set design looked like Farscape.

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As the title character concedes in the opening monologue: maybe he got soft. And if Chronicles was the film wherein he got soft, Riddick is where he thankfully hardens the fuck back up. I love that the opening sequences of this film are staged like a sort of hyper-violent Edgar Rice Burroughs sci-fi novel, where it’s just Diesel battling the elements and animals on his hazardous, nameless world.

I’m in awe of what Twohy, the set designers and the effects team have gotten away with in employing only a greenscreen and but a scant few sets. The majority of this was shot on a soundstage and, while it retains a fair amount of its budgeted B-movie feel, the scope and personality of the planet are substantial. Humans are not welcome in this place; Riddick earns no points for pioneering and making a go of it here. Devastated by the Necromongers ages ago, this world has returned itself to the volatility of nature; where creatures burrow underground waiting for the right time to stick their talons into you and claw out your innards. So yeah, it’s perfect for our guy.

riddick5Twohy and Diesel wisely hit the reset button, marooning Riddick on a desolate planet in the wake of being ditched by the Necromongers. Now a survivalist marauder, the character settles in to battle the elements with his pet beast, a delightful alien dog that looks like a cross between Old Yeller and Bubastis from Watchmen. The film doesn’t kick into high gear until Riddick sees the tide turn on his new home world, electing to reveal his position to mercs with the intent of stealing their ship and getting off the treacherous rock.

Twohy wisely shifts the perspective over to the mercenaries in the second act, thus dialing in on the best aspects of his lead in the process. Rambo may seem like an apt comparison here, but Riddick is essentially a science-fiction Jason Voorhees here. He can’t be killed, is only spoken of in hushed tones and, once the mercs are in pursuit, is seen only in glimpses as he turns the odds in his favor and stalks his prey. It’s in this shift that Diesel and Twohy rebuild the Riddick myth. What follows from then on is a violently fun back and forth that makes for one of the best action movies of the year. I always thought the proposed subtitle Dead Man Stalking, sounded dumb for a theatrical release of this ilk. After seeing this I’m lessening my stance. Riddick spends a surprising amount of time off-screen in this film, waiting in the dark to come in and slit throats.

It’s in the third act where you realize Riddick almost gets away with being three short films in one cohesive package as the story again shifts into a sort of Pitch Black remake. Once Riddick and the mercs are working toward a common goal, the script’s deficiencies reveal themselves a tad. Twohy’s script ties too heavily into a plotline from Pitch Black using Matt Nable’s boss merc. It’s not terribly distracting, though it’s not as serviceable as intended. If you haven’t seen Pitch Black it’s a useless complication and, if you have, it’s still a mild distraction that harkens back to something that already resolved itself two films ago. More so, my issue with the film’s final stretch is how it backs off the Riddick myth ever so slightly, ending on a character that’s not as dangerous and self-sufficient as the preceding events would lead you to believe. My gripe is perhaps one of taste over quality, as I felt the movie had made a pretty convincing argument for Riddick as a lone wolf up to that point.

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These concerns are still relatively minor in light of some heavy hitter character actors that overshadow the weaker plot elements without overshadowing Diesel. I adore Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) in this. Her Dahl is an epic badass and the film’s best quips are afforded to her. Nable, as much as I dislike his character’s last name, is a solid addition as mercenary whose integrity gets called into question. Dave Bautista, formerly of pro wrestling, does the trick as a menacing physical threat to Diesel (who’s no stranger to battling wrestlers onscreen). And it’s a mystery why Jordi Mollà (“Johnny” Tapia in Bad Boys II) doesn’t get more English speaking parts, as he again scores with spineless merc Santana. The backbone of Riddick is how badly you want our hero to fuck this guy up. If and when he does? Glory.

If Diesel wants to just make Riddick and Fast movies the rest of his career, I’m fine with that. Dude just clearly has an affinity towards Dominic Toretto and his murderous space avenger. By lessening their scope and returning Riddick to his rightful place as a sci-fi survivalist, they’ve revitalized the property. Pitch Black is still ostensibly the better film, though it bears mentioning I had way more fun with the graphically unrestrained Riddick. If the movie playswell enough and we’re visited with further Riddick adventures, I hope Twohy and Diesel remember to follow their own lead and keep the story small.

There are an infinite number of space-faring situations worth watching this character kill his way out of. Riddick succeeds because both character and story are rightfully confined – a noble case of talented, well-intentioned filmmakers learning from past sins.