Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Riddick The Inter-Stellar Bad-Ass Is Back!

            Previously, in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), Vin Diesel’s outlaw anti-hero eluded capture, battled on inhospitable planets and became king of a gothic army of baddies known as Necromongers. Despite a massive budget, intensive marketing and a cameo by Dame Judy Dench, the picture was poorly received on all fronts. Diesel fans, including myself, looked forward to the strongly implied sequel to that film; however, when what was hoped would be the launching of a major new franchise fizzled, Riddick was left with his Necromonger  hoards, all dressed up and no green light to go. The ensuing scrapping of the franchise was, in my opinion, a blessing in disguise.
While it is intriguing to imagine what Riddick would do with his own army of darkness, the truth is this character is not a leader; he’s a loner outcast in the tradition of a High Plains Drifter or Mad Max. The first steps in rebooting a Riddick franchise had to be dumping the weird armored heavies and re-establishing the solitary anti-hero. Both tasks were accomplished quickly and believably in Riddick by having Vaako (Karl Urban) lure the outlaw king from his throne with the promise of finding his home world Furya, only to abandon him on a desolate planet we’ll call “Not Furya”. And so, Riddick is reborn, unchained from the problematic trappings of his last outing.
            The first half hour or more of Riddick is virtually a silent film, showing the man himself living a Robinson Crusoe existence on “Not Furya”. He sets his own broken leg, injects the venom of a giant scorpion-like creature into himself to become desensitized before vanquishing the beast; and through flashbacks and voice-over brings us up to date on Vaako and the Necromongers. This introverted first act was effective; it re-introduced the title character and his abilities while also distancing this story from the previous film’s baggage.
            The plot takes off in earnest when Riddick realizes that a slowly approaching rain storm brings serious trouble. He activates the distress beacon of an abandoned outpost and soon finds himself again evading capture from not one but two teams of bounty hunters. One is a group of scruffy bad asses loosely lead by Santana (Jordi MollĂ ). The other group is professionally uniformed, slick and lead by Boss Johns (Matt Nable) and the brawny Dahl (Katee Sackoff). Riddick plays it straight and tough from the start letting his hunters know they’re all in danger and need to vacate the planet...Why doesn’t anyone ever listen? Oh yeh, Santana wants the fortune offered for Riddick’s head and Boss Johns wants to know the fate of his son, William Johns (Cole Hauser), who died a coward’s death in Pitch Black (2000).
Riddick is good science fiction in that the alien worlds and creatures are imaginative, though it’s hardly on the same level as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It should go without saying that this is not the sort of film one judges by the same standards as Oscar contenders or small Indie Productions. Some films are watched for fun and escapism alone, or for some quick vicarious thrills. Riddick knows what it is supposed to be, and doesn’t try or pretend to be anything more than an action adventure film; and on that level, it succeeds.
Apparently Vin Diesel acquired the rights to re-boot the Riddick franchise himself as part of his agreement to appear in more Fast & Furious films; as a fan, I’m glad he did. I have also been following, for years Diesel’s plans to make an epic biopic about Hannibal, the Carthaginian who crossed the Alps to attack Rome in the third century B.C. Who knows, that picture could be Diesel’s Braveheart, though that’s a bold expectation. Until then, fans of the shaved-headed, Gen-X answer to Clint Eastwood will have to be content with Riddick, two solid hours of rock ‘em / sock ‘em entertainment.

It really shouldn’t be a spoiler to say that Riddick makes it safely off of Not Furya re-invested in the search for his home, leaving the door open for a new high-concept Sci-Fi franchise. Personally, I look forward to following Riddick on his odyssey to Furya. I doubt I’m alone, and I know it’ll be decent, escapist fun. Diesel’s third turn in one of his most famous roles is not just adrenalin-infused candy for his fans, though, but is truly for anyone who can enjoy a good ride at the movies.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Pints, Punch Ups and WTFs?! at The World’s End

            It’s hard to recapture past glory, live up to our youthful potential and/or the expectations others have of us. These hobgoblins of the adult psyche, which we sense most acutely as middle-age approaches, plague not only Gary King (Simon Pegg) but the film he dominates: The World’s End. Not that this latest release from the team of Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright is bad, no, far from it!  However, this high-energy comedy feels a lot like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life; hilarious yet forced, lacking that spark which made its predecessors so outlandishly enjoyable.
            Story-wise, The World’s End is essentially an Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, with the feel of having been written between questions at a pub quiz. Gary King, a man stuck in perpetual teen-aged rebellion, gathers four old friends to their sleepy hometown of Newton Haven to conquer an epic pub crawl they bungled some 20 odd years earlier. The night starts with Gary’s mates, Andy (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsen), Steve (Paddy Considine) and Oliver (Martin Freeman) all basically humoring their “loser” pal from the past. Thankfully, just as the rebukes and relationships edge towards genuine adult drama, this film launches into its true nature: an apocalyptic sci-fi comedy. The five friends find themselves running from pub to pub (it’s their only plan) evading blue blooded non-robot simulants of the townsfolk. These “simulants” are put together like life-sized G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls (or Action Man if you’re reading this in the UK), a concept both imaginative and disturbing. It seems while everyone was off building grown-up lives complete with careers, kids and divorces; and Gary was off doing, well nothing really; a quiet alien invasion has been taking place not only in Newton Haven, but all over the world!
Ultimately, it is up to a very drunk Gary to make the case for mankind and convince the homogenizing and exceedingly polite aliens that Earth doesn’t want to be groomed to join their galactic community. Gary’s words speak not only of humanity but of himself as well: yes we’re uncouth; yes we’ve spent much of our time on the planet so far screwing around; and yes, we know what’s best for us and we still don’t do it! BUT we want to be free, to do what we want to do, to have fun and get loaded and, well who the hell are you to tell us what we should be or do?! Piss off!
            Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have said The World’s End is the conclusion of a trilogy with their previous films, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The connective tissue between the three is evident and there is a full-circle sense of finality to The World’s End. I will miss this team that made zombies funny, British coppers bad-asses and a pub crawl a world saving odyssey. Perhaps destiny will reunite Pegg and Wright; it was all over with Meaning of Life but it wasn’t with Return of the Jedi. (Hmm, Cornetto Wars, Episode One, The Phantom Whippy?)

The World’s End is great fun, with rapid fire humor, fights with life-sized action figure people and good running gags; but it is hardly the back-of-the-net goal that was the first romantic comedy with zombies. This film came dangerously close to being boring, with a group of friends gathering, re-opening old wounds and dealing with the perennial under-achiever. The first thirty minutes or so dragged as we got to know who these five were, have evolved into and what subtle animosities they harbor for one another. Thankfully, good action, comedy and solid writing came through in the third act and all that early, banal dialogue even turned out to be important. Maybe I’m being too hard on Pegg and Wright because of my unrealistic expectations of their work. It is hard to live up to your potential and other people’s expectations, especially once you’ve created a reputation for excellence. Like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Pegg & Wright’s “Blood and Ice Cream” finale may be damned to be an under-appreciated good time, judged by fans more for its failings than for its accomplishments.