Riddick: It's been a while since Vin Diesel appeared on movie screens in anything but a Fast and Furious movie; turns out in between driving stunts he's been laying low, negotiating the return of his would-be signature character, Riddick (first name: Richard. Middle initial: B. This is exactly how well-thought-out the Riddick mythology is, which is to say: medium). The glowy-eyed Riddick first appeared as a mysterious convict in writer-director David Twohy's Pitch Black, when the ship transporting him to prison crash-landed into a well-wrought Aliens knockoff. The positive response to Pitch Black way back in the year 2000 begat the more ambitious Chronicles of Riddick in 2004; the lead-up hype to Chronicles of Riddick begat an animated bridging tale, Dark Fury, as well as talk of a potential Riddick trilogy; the actual box-office performance and reputation of Chronicles of Riddick begat very little, least of all a series of mega-budget sci-fi fantasy adventures.
And yet, as with Riddick himself, leaving the series for dead was trickier than it looked. Twohy and Diesel got the rights to the character back, and while no one would give them the money to make another Chronicles-scale sequel, they did scrape together enough money for another movie in the vein of Pitch Black, entitled simply Riddick. (The title Richard Riddick has presumably been saved for the Rocky Balboa-style old-age installment, 20 or 30 years from now.) If this does well enough, Diesel and Twohy reportedly hope to circle back to the more epic stuff. In the meantime, this stop-gap picture fits in perfectly with the pulpy aesthetics of both its predecessors; it's exactly the movie they wanted to make as a compromise in lieu of the bigger movie they wanted to make.
This in-the-meantime project has plenty of sci-fi-horror slicing, dicing, and tough talk, the latter of which sounds as poorly translated from some made-up language as ever. But Riddick, like its siblings, spends more time with its characters than you might expect. I suppose that's a way of saying all of these movies are, at the filmmakers' preferred length, a little too long. But during the first 30 or 40 minutes of Riddick—covering Riddick's struggle back to life after being, yes, left for dead on, yes, a rather inhospitable unnamed planet—I was enthralled by the movie's patience for exploring its burned out, creature-populated landscape, and by Riddick's steely patience as he nurses himself back to health.
Pitch Black has a rep as the leaner, more efficient thriller compared to Chronicles of Riddick's silly space opera, but the latter has unmistakable imagination and enthusiasm, and in Riddick Twohy brings some of its lush pulpiness to shots of Diesel standing on rocks and/or against richly colorful skies. The compositions make excellent use of what was probably a limited effects-budget; the new film is, at times, downright painterly. Diesel seems less the murdering badass than a put-upon dude with survival skills. In general, these movies give Riddick more nasty talk than truly brutal action; he kills, of course, but usually in self-defense. Here he even reveals an affinity for dogs, or at least dog-like alien creatures.
Then some bounty hunters show up, which doesn't quite spoil the movie's mood—it has three distinct sections, a miniaturized version of its immediate predecessor's planet-hopping—but doesn't have quite the same hypnotic confidence as the survival stuff, either. Speech-wise, the opening only has to contend with some unnecessary hard-boiled narration from Diesel, while the aforementioned clumsy tough-talk comes out in torrents from the additions to the cast. Katee Sackhoff makes the most of the only female role and has a handle on spitting out insults, while designated worst-of-worst Jordi Molla sounds like he should be trading barely-one-liners with Stallone in an Expendables sequel.
It's fun to see Riddick toy with them—for a while, he's the H.R. Giger creature of this situation, only maybe less chatty—while waiting to see what new horrors the planet will unleash, but Twohy isn't ultimately a master of suspense or an inspired choreographer of action, despite some strong moments of both (plus dollops of satisfying gore!). He and Diesel aren't really after cheap thrills; the Riddick movies would all be 20 or 30 minutes shorter if that were the case. No, these guys seem to be into this series for genre pleasures so vivid and immediate they transcend plot or action: the sheer enjoyment of building a ridiculous, vast, and hostile sci-fi universe that could spawn another half-dozen movies. Richard B. Riddick exists as a going cinematic concern not because of particular demand (though surely the series has its fans) but because Diesel really wants to play a semi-superpowered sci-fi antihero who's always getting taken to supermax prison or left for dead or deposed from his throne or fighting creatures that look like wriggly hell-snakes. Those premises are Riddick's lot in life, and Riddick is Diesel's, by choice. This makes Riddick, in its stop-gap pulp-loving way, a weirdly personal film.