Vin Diesel‘s most famous role may be as serial fugitive/muscle car enthusiast Dominic Toretto from the increasingly outlandish and entertaining Fast & Furious franchise, but his most engaging and fascinating creation comes from quite a different world.
Richard B. Riddick, the central character of 2000’s Pitch Black, 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick and now Riddick, is his “Ellen Ripley”, his “Dirty Harry“, his “Indiana Jones”. Riddick’s persona has transcended his films and become synonymous with the star, rendering it impossible for the viewer to imagine anyone else ever playing that character.
Pitch Black was Diesel’s calling card to superstardom, a low-budget sci-fi horror flick that quickly became a cult favorite. A lean vehicle built around a villain-as-hero in the form of Riddick, the world depicted hinted at a larger narrative universe to be explored. The highly ambitious but deeply flawed Chronicles of Riddick followed, its much grander scope diluting the core essence of its story; Riddick himself.
So, the third installment, simply titled Riddick, scales it down again, focusing almost solely on Diesel’s finest creation. Left for dead on an unknown planet, the first part of Riddick is among the best science-fiction opening acts this year. Nary a word is uttered for the first 25 minutes, apart from Riddick’s voice-over thoughts, distilled down to their concise essence, as he re-cultivates his “animal side”; the primitive beast that is Riddick is born again, in the wild. Alone. And it is nothing short of fascinating to watch. In its simple, crude beauty, Diesel becomes Riddick.
The planet he is stranded on will not be his home forever, though, for two reasons. A: It is a hostile place, with venomous monsters lurking in the shadows, waiting for the next rainfall, and B: It isn’t Furya, Riddick’s birthplace and the world he longs to return to, and so he is compelled to move on.
So, by sending out an emergency beacon, he attracts not one, but two mercenary crews, each seeking Riddick’s plentiful bounty. Thus, the inevitable game is afoot.
Of course, there are direct and indirect correlations to other cinematic and literary works in Riddick (both the film and the character). Diesel’s persona echoes some of the lone heroes of the 1980s, fighting evil with evil, foregoing their own personal salvation to either save something larger or, more cynically, to point out that the world is inherently an evil place, where cruelty is the way to survive.
But Riddick isn’t your typical counter-culture motherfucker. He isn’t a noble Schwarzeneggerian savage. And he certainly isn’t a resolute anti-hero, like John McClane, or a lone reasonable voice in a mad vortex of corporate single-mindedness, like Ellen Ripley. No, Riddick is his own creature, a hybrid. He’s a complex beast, imbued with moral ambiguities, not aimed at the borders between good and evil, civilized and savage, but at human and animal ones, if there are any.
There is a sense of palpable tension whenever he is on-screen. Not necessarily in terms of what will happen, as the script is decidedly formulaic, but rather in terms of fracturing the imperceptible wall around Riddick’s true nature. This staggeringly smart and yet so primitive character gives the viewer the vague feeling that somewhere in Riddick’s universe, the greatest science fiction film of all time is waiting to be made.
There are no heroes in Riddick. The “hero” is a primal beast in the form of a man, and it is surrounded by either literal monsters, like the scorpion-like alien crawlers, or figurative ones, like the mercenaries hunting him down. Therefore, the normal dichotomy of the battle between them doesn’t apply. The result can’t be in the form of a “happy ending”, or even an “unhappy ending”, because the terms of good and evil, grace and nature, have been abandoned before the film even starts. There is simply survival.
Of course, that unusual approach to cinematic protagonists makes the mandatory showdown between Riddick and the mercs, followed by a climactic showdown between Riddick, the mercs and the scorpaliens less focused in terms of who you’re rooting for.
So we get Katee Sackhoff.
Oh, Katee Sackhoff.
If there has been a crippling problem facing the Riddick films so far, it’s that no human opponent has ever come close to matching Riddick’s (and Diesel’s by extension) charm, ferocity and gusto, making every showdown an eventual countdown to the last Riddick standing. But Sackhoff comes blazing in on her metaphorical unicorn of geek-stardom and guilty pleasure voyeurism that her presence alone creates a spark in the film’s stand-off moments between Riddick and the mercs. One so strong that it’s really hard to not start rooting for the pair of them to hook up at some point, in a fit of adolescent geeking-out.
Now, let’s be fair. The dialogue is almost uniformly atrocious. When Riddick isn’t internally philosophizing or bonding with his alien CGI dog, you really don’t want to listen too hard to the actual words being said. David Twohy’s directing prowess doesn’t extend far beyond making sure Diesel is depicted as the most imposing man in the frame at each given point and the editing is sloppy at times. And, like in the previous two films, the effects range from good to mediocre throughout.
Ironically, though, in a “creature feature sci-fi horror”, it’s neither the creatures, the sci-fi nor the horror that you sign up for when you start watching. It’s Riddick and the profound but enigmatic character Vin Diesel has crafted that you want to meet. And on those terms, Riddick passes with flying colors.
Final Verdict: A better character study than an action film, Riddick succeeds wildly in focusing squarely on the fascinating character Vin Diesel has created. It does less so in terms of action or effects, but the savage, unrefined but surprisingly restrained journey into Riddick’s enigmatic psyche more than makes up for it.