Thursday, September 12, 2013
You’ve got to like Vin Diesel to enjoy his movies. Diesel plays the same character or a variation on it in all his movies. He has a narrow range of roles. Generally, he makes crime thrillers. He skewered his image with “The Pacifier” back in 2005. Diesel dominates his films, but his co-stars occasionally make an impression. Indeed, the gravel-voiced Diesel stands out in any crowd. A brawny hulk of a fellow, Diesel maintains a Frank Frazetta physique, sports a Telly Savalas haircut, and pierces you with his gimlet eyes. Diesel lacks neither nerve nor authority. Apparently, he splits his time between the “Fast & Famous” franchise and the “Riddick” franchise. Word is that Diesel has negotiated to appear in a second “xXx” sequel entitled “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage.” The “Riddick” franchise has not been as financially rewarding for Universal Pictures as the “Fast & Furious” series, but the actor has a soft spot for Riddick.
In the first Riddick epic “Pitch Black,” our anti-heroic, convict with man-made night vision fought carnivorous, pelican-like dinosaur birds with huge raptor teeth. Obsessed by its insatiable lust for blood, these flying piranha teeth fowl descended onto Riddick and company like waves of Stuka-bats. “Pitch Black” concerned survival under the worst conditions against a deadly supernatural predator. The stranger in a strange land applied almost equally to this creepy sci-fi fantasy because the crash victims were tourists on a planet teeming with “Jurassic Park” predators. Basically, “Pitch Black” (2000) resembled an old-fashioned Tarzan movie whose setting had been altered to outer space. Instead of a private plane crashing in a jungle filled with deadly tribes and predators, a commercial cargo vessel plunges to a planet ruled by deadly carnivores. In a Tarzan movie, the heroes would battle their way to safety after encounters with lions, baboons, elephants, and crocodiles. Director David Twohy’s original generated considerable suspense with shocks and surprises to compensate for its standard-issue plot. You knew Vin would triumph. This same problem plagued the ambitious “Chronicles of Riddick” (2004) that put our protagonist into a completely different plot. He tangled with human rather than bestial adversaries. “Chronicles” appeared five years after “Pitch Black.” Comparatively, “Chronicle” shunned the exotic wildlife and survival-of-the-fittest themes. Instead, it introduced a race of amoral space marauders named the ‘Necromongers.’ The second Riddick movie looked like “Flash Gordon” meets “Dune” space opera. As the second sequel in the “Pitch Black” franchise, director David Twohy’s “Riddick” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) shuns the spectacle of “Chronicles” and reverts to survival of the fittest, with exotic, celestial predators. The “Riddick” predators surpass the “Pitch Black” beasties, and Riddick performs several impressive feats. Furthermore, “Riddick” ties its two previous movies together in its plot. Karl Urban appears in a cameo early in the action as Vaako.
If you haven’t seen “The Chronicles of Riddick,” you may find yourself at a considerable disadvantage. “Riddick” opens on a hostile planet where our protagonist has been left to perish. Richard P. Riddick (Vin Diesel of “xXx”) is in pretty bad shape. The opening scene with a repulsive space vulture that Riddick traps in his fist epitomizes his dire predicament. The double-crossing Necromongers have abandoned Riddick on the wrong planet and triggered an avalanche where he breaks his leg. Jamming his foot in a crack in the rocks, he straightens out of his injured appendage. “Riddick” shows how Riddick is as resourceful as Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” protagonist. The funniest incident occurs when Riddick fakes off a snarling alien jackal. Designated “Dingo Doggies” by other characters, these beasts are huge, Great Dane hounds with black stripes crossing their dark orange fur. Eventually, Riddick finds a puppy and trains it. Our rugged hero discovers that he is on a part of the planet that he cannot leave without sloshing through a small mud pond. Remember the fairy tale about the troll who lived under a bridge? Lurking in this harmless puddle is a poisonous “Mud Demon” creature. These predators perambulate on two legs, possess a long, scorpion-like tail with snapping pincers, and prefer to wallow in mud. Riddick studies a Mud Demon” and observes how it submerges part of its body. This fiend distracts you with its cobra-like, scorpion tail while the rest of its body—concealed by the mud—moves in for the kill with a head shaped like the “Alien” monster to seize its prey. Once Riddick has contrived his strategy, he slays the creature and finds his way to an outpost established by space mercenaries for emergencies. Space mercenaries are typically bounty hunters. Riddick activates a signal beacon like the little girl warrior did in “Hanna.” Promptly, two teams of bounty hunters respond. The reward on Riddick’s head is doubled if the bounty hunters kill him. Santana (Jordi Mollà of “Blow”) and his well-armed but unsavory crew arrive first, while Johns (Matt Nable of “Killer Elite”) and his team follow. Johns promises Santana that he will let him operate with a free hand. Indeed, Johns is related to the Johns that had captured Riddick in “Pitch Black.”
"Pitch Black" rarely gave us crystal clear views of its predators. “Riddick” provides us with a front-row seat to appreciate the Mud Demons in all their menace. “The Chronicles of Riddick” contained only one scene with caged animals. Our hero is back in his element in “Riddick,” and he has his hands filled throughout the film’s veritable two hour running time. Mind you, “Riddick” never wears out its welcome. Specifically, Riddick unfolds in three acts. Initially, Riddick adapts and recuperates on the planet after the evil Necromongers have abandoned him. He studies his number one enemy, and this predator returns in greater numbers later when a massive storm provides it with conditions ideal to its migration. Riddick amounts to a space Rambo. He moves on phantom feet, and you rarely know where he is since he is so clandestine. Riddick and Santana are at each other’s throats throughout “Riddick,” and Santana qualifies as a thoroughly obnoxious villain. He murders a defenseless woman after he releases her and later cites his growing attachment to her as his justification. Santana vows to collect Riddick’s head in a box. The pay-off to this intense rivalry resembles something from a 1980s’ Arnold Schwarzenegger actioneer. For sheer diversity, Johns’ team features a battle-hardened lesbian, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff who played ‘Starbuck’ in “Battlestar Galactica”), with an affinity for firearms. David Twohy, who has helmed all three Riddick epics, slips in surprises galore. Altogether, “Riddick” tops “Pitch Black,” but it is neither as spectacular nor as multi-layered as “Chronicles.” If “Riddick” marks your first exposure to the “Pitch Black” franchise, you are probably going to be lost when references to the previous installments occur. Meanwhile, Riddick fans will appreciate Twohy’s efforts to impose continuity onto the trilogy. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another decade for another “Riddick” sequel.