The way hasn’t been easy of the Riddick series, much like the human predator at its core. Universal’s big-budget sequel to the original Pitch Black failed to catch fire in 2004, so star Vin Diesel and director David Twohy went back to the drawing board. Nine years later, they’re back and it’s safe to say that they’re not done with this franchise by a long shot.
The new Riddick understandably depends on Pitch Black more than Chronicles. It’s leaner, it’s tighter and if we’re absolutely honest, its scenario matches the first film’s a little too closely for comfort. But at the same time, it breathes new life into the series and if (as Twohy has promised) there are at least two more films just waiting for a little box office success to set free, that’s not a terrible thing. (Full disclosure: I dug Chronicles more than a lot of people.)
Two things help this latest effort on its way: the lower budget, which forces Twohy and his crew to think outside the box a little, and the hard “R” rating, which lets the character express himself fully without worrying about padding the box office returns. Riddick displays a pulp savagery that serves it extremely well. At times, it resembles Schwarzenegger’s Conan more than anything else, with individual shots of Riddick striding across the alien landscape that might have been ripped whole from the cover of Thrilling Wonder Tales.
Fans may be disappointed to learn that this doesn’t advance the greater storyline much, though it certainly acknowledges what has come before. It even brings Karl Urban back in a jumped-up cameo that finds Riddick (Diesel) betrayed by the Necromongers and left for dead on a suitably dangerous planet. The first forty minutes cover his fight for survival against the very scary wildlife: a down-and-dirty exercise in getting back to basics. The self-regard is still present, as is the pomposity that the series’ critics have always found insufferable. But fans know that’s part of the fun, and watching Riddick go mano-a-mano with some giant stinger-laden nightmare holds a special delight for those so inclined.
Naturally, things can’t stay in primitive savagery forever, and soon enough a gaggle of bounty hunters arrives to collect him. (No word on how they intersect with the Necromongers, though it’s implied that the latter baddies still have a long way to go before taking over the whole galaxy.) They’re divided into two groups, joined in common purpose but unwilling to concede much to the other side. Riddick, of course, is happy to exploit the existing fissures.
The formula worked well enough for Pitch Black and when combined with the sterling early scenes here, it makes for a solid curtain call. While this go ‘round definitely cleaves too close to the first film for comfort, Twohy provides enough variation thanks to differing dynamics within the circle of hunters and Riddick’s comparative freedom. Twohy comes up with plenty of interesting things for them to do (there’s a recurring bit involving a box for storing severed heads that has a wonderful gross-out payoff), and increased freedom of actively catering to grown-ups can be felt from beginning to end.
Diesel remains the straw that stirs the drink, as always. The character holds a special place in his heart, and his enthusiasm for strapping on those black goggles hasn’t dimmed a bit in the previous thirteen years. Twohy, for his part, is still the best-kept secret in science fiction filmmaking, a director whose comparatively modest efforts display a wit and creativity sorely lacking in more prominent genre productions. Together, they craft another quiet little thrill ride: scaled back but – like more than a few films this summer – achieving so much more by reaching for so much less. If the last few months have left you jaded and spent, then Riddick will do wonders for your exhausted spirit. We needed popcorn this tasty to show up just a little bit earlier.