Friday, September 6, 2013

Riddick: Back to basics

Riddick (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong violence, profanity, sexual candor and occasional nudity
By Derrick Bang 

Richard B. Riddick is the Timex watch of action antiheroes: No matter how bone-crunching the licking, he keeps on ticking.

Armed with no more than a large bone club, Riddick (Vin Diesel) attempts to survive
his encounter with a particularly large "mud demon." This creature is between him and
access to a safer part of this wayward planet, so Riddick is determined to win this
little skirmish. Rest assured, though: This won't be the last he sees of mud demons.
You’ve got to admire a guy who can survive a fall of several hundred feet (perhaps even more) while getting buried beneath a massive rock avalanche ... with no more than some cuts, bruises and a leg fracture that he sets himself, by jamming metal pins into the surrounding muscle.

Granted, this character’s otherwise cartoonish invulnerability is made almost palatable by Vin Diesel’s growling, glowering performance; one can imagine Riddick is fueled by ’tude alone. Bottle the stuff, and he’d made a fortune selling it to up-and-coming action hero wannabes.

Diesel follows in the well-stomped footsteps of earlier strong, monosyllabic types played by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger; like them, Diesel has made a virtue of his limited acting range. He’s a dour teddy bear on steroids: an apparent bad guy — introduced, back in 2000’s Pitch Black, as a “notorious convict” — who nonetheless respects honor, reluctantly protects the weak and disenfranchised, and turns into a coldly efficient predator only when dealing with Those Who Deserve It.

Even when chained and (apparently) helpless, Riddick can issue threats with a layer of menace that Diesel sells quite persuasively.

Like I said, you gotta admire the guy.

Riddick has become an intriguing franchise for Diesel and writer/director David Twohy. Following Pitch Black — which Twohy scripted from a story by Jim and Ken Wheat — they re-teamed for 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick and, that same year, an animated short called Dark Fury (Diesel voicing his character, Twohy supplying the story). But Chronicles was an overblown box-office bomb, its complicated narrative adding far too much extraneous stuff to the first film’s plain-vanilla, survive-the-threat template.

No surprise, then, that Twohy has gone back to basics with this new film, which sports the appropriately simple title of Riddick. Wisely dumping the second film’s Egyptian-esque, Necromonger intrigue that felt swiped from 1994’s Stargate, Twohy gives us the same basic, one-against-impossible-odds story that made Pitch Black such a nifty little B-thriller.

Indeed, at times the echoes of Pitch Black are so loud, that this “new” film almost could be considered a remake.

Once again stuck on a godforsaken little planet in the middle of celestial nowhere, Riddick calls on his impressive survival skills to endure. How he winds up on this sun-scorched world is detailed in a needlessly obtuse and frankly stupid flashback: some clumsy exposition that Twohy attempts to improve with Diesel’s off-camera narration (a device employed only during these early scenes).

Twohy’s subsequent story divides neatly into three distinct chapters, the first an all but dialogueless depiction of Riddick’s efforts to master his barren surroundings. This act is compelling in a Robinson Crusoe-esque manner, with Riddick slowly gauging the relative degree of danger presented by the planet’s primary predators: a nasty little winged carrion feeder, easily kept at bay; a jackal-like canine, definitely hazardous in hunting packs; and a truly wicked, razor-tailed “mud demon” confined to pools in darkened caves.

The latter has a nasty two-pronged attack, with both poisonous fangs and its slashing tail.

Twohy put some thought into this barren world’s ecology, and he deserves credit for the effort.

Having built himself back up to fighting strength — a process that takes months, based on the canine companion that he trains from puppyhood (another nice touch) — Riddick ventures further afield and finds an unstaffed mercenary resource station. He activates the interior emergency beacon, allowing it to scan him, knowing full well that bounty-hungry mercenaries will arrive quickly, eager to catch him for the reward.

Riddick’s plan works: Cue Act II, and the arrival of a ship filled with lethal killers led by a machete-wielding sadist named Santana (Jordi Mollà). His gang is followed, in short order, by a second craft captained by Boss Johns (Matt Nable) and his kick-ass second-in-command, a Nordic sniper named Dahl (Katee Sackhoff).

Followers of Riddick’s earlier escapades will recognize the name Johns, and indeed Boss turns out to be the father of William Johns, the weasel bounty hunter played by Cole Hauser, who met a well-deserved end back in Pitch Black. Boss Johns now has serious issues with Riddick, but Santana isn’t about to let anybody else horn in on his action.

The two rival merc groups therefore establish an uneasy alliance, with Boss Johns and his group politely waiting for the moment when Santana asks for help ... a moment that Johns knows will arrive, because Riddick is far more resourceful than Santana appreciates.

This middle portion is Twohy’s strongest act, with the seemingly omniscient Riddick — helped by his four-legged “pet” — playing on group paranoia and tweaking the mercs at every turn. By far the most suspenseful scene involves Santana and a booby-trapped storage locker that Riddick might have tampered with: a deliciously harrowing interlude that Twohy and editor Tracy Adams milk for maximum tension.

Loyalties and alliances shift again with the arrival of Act III, when all hell breaks loose. Thanks to a massive, region-wide rainstorm that churns the arid desert sand into puddles and rivulets, the fearsome mud demons are granted wide-ranging mobility the moment night falls: a serious problem for everybody except Riddick, thanks to his spooky, night-vision-enhanced eyes.

And, just that quickly, we’re re-playing the final act from Pitch Black. Not necessarily a bad thing, but — if this film revives the franchise — I hope Twohy comes up with something more original next time.

Mollà is appropriately vicious as Santana, the sort of cheerful sadist who probably tossed kittens into a microwave when he was a kid. We get his measure early on, when he kills a female captive for sport (Keri Lynn Hilson, in an eyeblink role); right then, as Riddick watches this act through Diesel’s hardened gaze, we know that Santana isn’t destined to die of old age.

Nable overacts atrociously as Boss Johns, emoting toward the back balcony with a saliva-sputtering fury that works against his introduction as an ultra-cool mercenary. Former WWE world champion and mixed martial-arts grappler Dave Bautista is much more persuasively powerful as Diaz, the guy who keeps Santana’s crew in line.

Nolan Gerard Funk has a weird supporting role as Luna, the youngest member of Santana’s crew, whose Bible-spouting piety is a plot affectation that feels and sounds like it wandered in from some other film. We sympathize with Luna because of his youth, and suspect that he’s probably a decent fellow at heart, but that makes his presence even stranger; I cannot imagine somebody like Santana putting up with this young man’s behavior, even if he is regarded as a “lucky charm.”

All of which brings us to Sackhoff, who as Dahl — a name chosen specifically for its sound-alike term of ridicule — gets to be even more of a bad-ass than she was as Starbuck, during five seasons of television’s Battlestar Galactica ... which means she busts heads, cusses like a sailor and bares her chest (the latter quite pointlessly, I’m obliged to mention). Sackhoff obviously has a great time with the role, particularly each time Dahl makes an example of Santana, and the actress is buff enough to make her smackdowns reasonably credible.

But this is Diesel’s show, and he holds our attention quite effectively, bringing these proceedings more dramatic heft than they deserve. There’s no denying Diesel’s presence, and his aura of latent menace; on top of that, it’s a hoot to watch him outfox and out-think all these tough-talking thugs (the balance of whom don’t get enough screen time to be distinguished from each another).

Graeme Revell delivers a serviceable score: all mood, without any noticeably defining themes. Cinematographer David Eggby conveys this planet’s grim surroundings, at times granting us a sense of the shimmering heat, and he also has fun depicting what Riddick “sees” through his unusual eyes.

At 119 minutes, though, Riddick wears out its welcome; Twohy takes much too long to build to the climax, which then lingers past the point of diminishing returns. I’m also dismayed by his reliance on the gory deaths that fans have made de rigueur in this post-Saw era; has it really become necessary to sink to such slaughterhouse excess?

And that, ultimately, is the major problem with this newest chronicle of Riddick: Despite all of Diesel’s droll sneaking around and predatory skill, nothing in this film delivers the emotional wallop we got at the end of Pitch Black. Twohy may know how to direct Riddick’s action-packed adventures, but we need a stronger writer at the keyboard.

One who can give our stoic antihero some fully fleshed adversaries, rather than the two-dimensional cartoons populating this flick.

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