Vin’s back in his most-loved role (by him, at least). To get into training, the action star gargled a mouthful of gravel for a full forty minutes every morning, rather than his usual twenty. The extra effort has served him well, as his monotone drawl manages (mostly) to pass off the most uninspired dialogue. With that in mind, it should be little surprise that the best parts of this trilogy-maker are the sequences where Richard B. Riddick has no one to talk to.
Riddick is something of a disappointment; needs must, or at least budgets must, that the overblown space opera of Chronicles has been pared down to the bone. But why did director David Twohy and his star think it was a good idea to put all that solid groundwork in for what becomes to a tepid reheat of the first movie? Probably because the fans repeated that Pitch Black was the one they really loved.
Vin is nothing if not interactive with his groupies, ever posting piccies from projects and updating his Facebook like the kind of madman who is wants to satisfy 47 million thumbs-ups. The rights to his night-visioned anti-hero were bundled to him in return for a cameo in Tokyo Drift (Universal was that attached to the franchise following the underperformance of Chronicles). He’ll explain how he mortgaged his house (only one of them?) to secure the financing for his labour of love. All did not go according to plan, despite the long gestation period. The funding hiccupped, and the planned location shoot in Egypt fell through; the result was a planet surface entirely created in the studio. One could complain that the lack of locale is very evident, but it goes to underline that this is an unashamed B-movie. The problem is, there are great B-movies and then there are the rest.
The crashing of Chronicles also resulted in an ever-so slight hiccup in the extended space opera Twohy and Diesel envisaged for their character. All that Necromongering and bestowal of supreme leadership had to be curtailed (wherever it was they planned to send Richie, you can bet it was vast). So, in a rather half-arsed flashback (graced by a cameo return from Karl Urban), we discover that he was betrayed by his adopted people, ending up presumed dead on an unnamed planet, which is where we meet him.
I was fully on-board with the B-trappings, and Twohy makes an effort to accentuate the alien inhospitability of this world (just about the first thing we learn is not to drink the water, or at least be very careful about the water you drink). The CGI creatures are very evidently just that, but no better or worse than those in your average blockbuster. In particular, Riddick’s adopted jackal is rendered with sufficient personality that we are invested in the one-man-and-dog Mad Max 2-esque relationship. But, if the dog is a positive slice of invention, the death’s head-tailed predators never attain a status other than as an overly referential nod to those of Pitch Black. Instead of creatures that come out at night, there are creatures that come out in the rain.
So, while the one man against the wilderness first act is engaging, Twohy fumbles both the conceptualisation and delivery of the other two. Instead of effectively building momentum once Riddick realises he has to get out that place, the director-writer evaporates it by engaging with the activities of the unengaging mercenaries who arrive to take him captive. There’s absolutely no good reason a lean mean 100-minute movie should last two hours. The consequence is vague boredom setting in during the middle section (one of my fellow cinema goers fell asleep, which might be a slightly excessive critical response).
All the squabbling mercs seem capable of is exchanging banal expletives; it’s especially disappointing that a writer-turned-director should show such a tin ear for dialogue. And it’s particularly galling, as the overinflated running time seems designed to spotlight these characters; as if they should be a source of pride rather than a selection of tiresome clichés (the lesbian character announces she’s a lesbian within seconds, the young pup is religious so unconvincingly starts praying as soon as the attack begins). Instead of concentrating on what this motley crew were up to, I became distracted at how one character, who has a particular beef against Riddick, could be the father of a someone he encountered in an earlier movie, despite only three years separating the actors involved. It makes the eight years between Cary Grant and mum Jessie Royce Landis in North by Northwest look like perfectly reasonable casting.
The lacklustre elements aside, there are pleasures to be had along the way. There’s no doubt that Riddick continues to have potential as good bad guy, but I can’t help thinking he would be served better if Twohy came up with some characters with equal weight, who are other than stock types. I like the motif of cocky Riddick predicting just how he’s going to best his adversaries, even if some of the actual scenarios lack real cunning (the locked cabinet) and others are just woeful (going balls-deep in Starbuck, or rather Katee Sackhoff). There are less illustrious activities than coming up with classic ways for Riddick to off bad guys (unfortunately the tea cup scene in Chronicles is not trumped here, however). Katee’s main purpose in the movie appears to have been to flash a nipple so Riddick can do his Peeping Tom act. Except… well, I come to that.
While the third act is entertaining enough, we’ve already seen him pulling off exactly the same thing in the first movie. The way to make a B-movie like this shine is to make a virtue of the supporting players and give them memorable rather than just ripe dialogue; Cameron’s Aliens ought to be the template for this sort of picture (that’s how you make a B-movie). Unfortunately, only David Bautista (who makes Vin look like a wee fellow) makes an impression.
By default, the most entertaining aspect has already received a fair amount of scrutiny from the bemused online community; the (intentional?) subtext of homosexual angst exhibited by Richard B. Straight off the bat, our nonplussed protagonist makes himself unpopular with the Necromongers when he demurs from taking advantage of a harem of its shaven ladies. He comments, something to the effect that he wasn’t into it. Fair enough, you think; horses for courses. But later, when he encounters devout lesbian Starbuck, he’s all over her with his deep balls. Presumably because there’s no danger she’ll be turned? Is our man Vin trying to let us know something here? He’s certainly not leaving much room for doubt.
Twohy, like any connoisseur of rip-offs, indulges a number of movie references; I mentioned Mad Max 2, but there’s also Apocalypse Now (Riddick rising from the undrinkable water) and Die Hard 3 (a family member out for revenge). He doesn’t do anything really interesting with them, though. I loved his last film, A Perfect Getaway, which was gleefully batshit crazy and berserkly watchable even if you guessed the twist. And I had a good time with the first two Riddicks. But this one, with a title that suggests a self-titled album by an uninspired band struggling for back-to-basics glory, fails through beating a safe retreat. If you get another chance, David, throw Riddick into a scenario as different as Chronicles was from Pitch Black. I’m still rooting for the goggle-bound hulk.