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 Mollà). 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.