Hello again, my fellow geeks. Over the last few weeks I have suffered a sometimes crushing disappointment from films I had high hopes for. I am happy to say that is not the case tonight. Perhaps it was a case of middling expectations being exceeded, but be that as it may, I had a really good time with Riddick.
Vin Diesel and Writer/Director David Twohy have spent the better part of the last decade trying to get this film made and their passion for the story and especially the character shines through in every frame.
After the more mythology building second film, The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), this film is a return to the more lean and mean storytelling of Pitch Black (2000), which was our introduction to Richard B. Riddick.
Although they do a very quick re-cap of Riddick’s adventures up to this point, this film is designed as a stand-alone story. As those who saw The Chronicles of Riddick know, that film ended with our (anti) hero being crowned the Lord Marshall of the Necromongers after killing their previous leader. The Necromongers are a planet devouring army of black armored space Spartans with a twisted and almost religious quest to find the UnderVerse….and I’m snickering to myself as I type these words. If all that sounds semi-goofy, rest assured, it is all-the-way goofy.
Almost as if Diesel and Twohy realized just how convoluted and undercooked that whole concept and film were, they spend as little screen time as possible explaining that Riddick was double-crossed and left for dead by the Necromonger second-in-command (a blink and you’ll miss it cameo by Karl Urban) and we start our story proper with Riddick right where his character works the best, alone and unarmed on a nameless, sun-scorched planet.
After nursing his wounds and making friends with a small puppy of an alien creature that grows into a giant dog like alien creature, Riddick has a few run-ins with the dominant species on this planet. It’s a large creepy monster that looks like a cross between a scorpion, a snake and a mutant lobster.
Realizing that his survival rate will be zero on the planet against these things, Riddick activates the emergency beacon he finds in a crashed ship and waits for help to arrive.
The biggest problem I had with The Chronicles of Riddick wasn’t that its ambition was beyond its budget, it was the fact that it had an air of pretension around it. The whole film was trying to distance itself from the roots of the character of Riddick. Pitch Black had been an almost perfect little B-movie but every frame of The Chronicles of Riddick felt like it was trying to leave that kind of B-movie goodness behind and become respectable.
The single best compliment I can give Riddick is that it completely embraces its B-movie heritage and just has fun. There were a few good surprises along the way too. Not one but two different bounty-hunter ships show up to answer the emergency beacon. When Riddick activated the beacon, the beacon did a scan of him and sent the info out. Since he is still the most wanted man in the whole wide ‘verse, these two crews are both looking to cash in.
Where most films like this stumble is here. Most films would make the crews very thin and paint-by-numbers characters. While these guys (and girl) aren’t exactly out of Shakespeare, they are actually pretty interesting. For one thing, each crew seems like they actually know and like each other. They are not at each others throats and threatening to kill each other the entire time. There is certainly a good crew and a bad crew but they all behave like actual humans.
Spanish actor Jordi Molla is great as the captain of the bad crew, Santana, and he gets a lot of the really great lines. He has a way with line delivery that just made me smile. He is also a good enough actor that he lets us see the uncertainty and fear behind the false bravado. Matt Nable is also very good as the captain of the good crew, Boss Johns. He has been tracking Riddick for ten-years and has a very personal vested interest in catching him. He does a good job at showing us a decent man who’s desperate need for answers is leading him to do things against his own moral code.
There are character shadings here that we don’t usually get in this kind of film. That was something I was pleasantly surprised by. I enjoyed the interplay between the characters, I wasn’t just waiting for them to die. Almost everyone gets a moment to shine.
As I have said in other columns and reviews, almost all films break down into 3 acts. That is true here as well. In fact much like The Place Beyond the Pines this is almost 3 completely different films. I never would have believed I would be typing this but the truth is Riddick does this better than the Ryan Gosling film from earlier this year.
Act One finds Riddick alone on the planet. Aside from a few voice-overs, this is an almost silent film. Its like Bear Grylls in space. It is pure joy to watch Riddick make weapons out of bones, figure out how to bring down one of the monsters trying to kill him and make friends with the weird little dog creature. I found myself wanting this section to last longer. When he activates the emergency beacon and the bounty hunters come calling, we shift to another whole kind of film.
Act Two find the two bounty hunter crews meeting and deciding how best to go about catching Riddick. David Twohy makes a very interesting and risky choice here. He lets us see this whole section from the bounty hunters point of view. Riddick pretty much disappears from the film for a good chunk of time. He becomes like Michael Myers in Halloween or Jason in Friday the 13th. He is talked about and feared and we see the bloody aftermath of his attacks but we only catch glimpses of him in the shadows. It was a risky move that paid off because of how well written and well acted the bounty hunter characters are. We don’t mind spending time with these guys (and Katee Sackhoff…but who would mind that?) because we actually kind of like them.
If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you know that eventually they do indeed catch Riddick and hold him in chains on one of their ships. This shifts us to a whole different film for the last act.
Act Three finds all our characters united (against their wills) against the mutant lobster/snake/giant scorpion monsters in what is as close to a Pitch Black sequel as we’ve yet seen. This section gives us some great kills, some great one-liners and what is sure to be a future classic payoff to an ongoing head in a box plot device. It is here, in the last act, that the film becomes the monster movie it wants so bad to be.
Something else that I really liked is the fact that the film ended. No cliffhangers. No unresolved plot-lines dangling. It actually ends. Remember when all movies did that all the time? These kinds of Sci-fi Horror films can be the worst offenders in this category, trying to sneak one last Gotcha! moment in at the end to either make you mad or goose you one last time before the light come up.
This is another area in which Vin Diesel and David Twohy surpassed my expectations. They told a lean and mean little story, filled it with good characters, good lines, good action, some decent but not over-the-top gore and then concluded their story in a way that satisfied and didn’t feel like a cheat.
Was it a perfect film? Not even close. The effect work was choppy in places and the film did feel stage bound at times, especially in daytime scenes. In some scenes the monster effects were really good, in other scenes the CGI didn’t seem quite finished. The script, for all the good characters and one-liners, did feel a little clichéd in parts, but in a genre film like this, that can be part of the charm.
This will be a film I will return to in the future though. I’ll return to it because sometimes I just want a film to be fun. I like a good monster movie. I also like a good bounty hunter movie. Sometimes I just want to see a really great B-movie. I always want to see a great B-movie that knows what it is and embraces it. Those kinds of films can be a blast when you’re in the right mood. I was in the right mood tonight and this film delivered in spades.
Also this film has Katee Sackhoff. Read that again…it has Katee Sackhoff being a badass.
I am almost always in the mood for that.
Until next time, Keep the Projector Threaded.
4 STARS OUT OF 5