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One of the many ways this franchise mimics Conan the Barbarian.

After almost ten years, here comes the third Riddick movie. I think it would be a bit of an overstatement to say this was a highly anticipated threequel but Riddick has always had a fanbase and the recent resurgence of Vin Diesel has made this movie possible for them. I count myself tentatively among the fans of Riddick, and enthusiastically among the fans of Diesel (check out that video of him singing Rihanna, it’s astonishing). I’ve also always been easier going on the much-hated Chronicles of Riddick than most people. I liked it for what it tried to be more than for what it is, I guess. The idea of a misanthropic Space Conan is one that has legs. Pitch Black didn’t have that idea coded into its DNA, but Chronicles certainly did. Riddick, the self-titled third album, remembers that idea even as it does its best to recall the more successful and more focused Pitch Black.

Part of me wishes they would have gotten the budget to do the movies they originally wanted to do. David Twohy and Vin Diesel have created a slapdash mythology around this character and they have big eyes for where it’s all going. Unfortunately, the failure of Chronicles and the non-blockbuster status of the character means the money isn’t exactly flowing for the grandiose fantasy epics they wanted to make. So we get this, a much more stripped down and raw side-story that feels like a one-shot bridge movie that self-consciously acknowledges the need to get things back on track. There are bits of monologuing in this movie that feel like they’re breaking the fourth wall, commenting indirectly about the franchise, character, and even Diesel himself. This goes together with the strange sexual psychology of the movie and its characters to elevate the subtext of Riddick to an interesting, probably unintended place.

It helps that the film is rather good. Especially the first half. It’s also much grander and more beautiful than the early trailers suggested. It’s far from the B-movie lowfi of Pitch Black and even farther from the saturated, Star Wars-lite of Chronicles. It exists somewhere between the grit and the glamor, and it feels like (visually at least), Twohy has really gotten his stride. The world-building is as slippery as ever, the character is still the sly dangerous antihero (with some soft spots) that we remember, and so on. All this is packaged in a lean, robust action movie masquerading as a creature feature. Even when it gives up on its best parts to focus on the secondary characters, Riddick keeps you engaged. When it turns into a buddy movie about honor and relying on others, you can’t help but feel like they’ve really made good with this one. tumblr_mmyctmIRZa1rso9kjo2_500

Riddick’s dog was an unexpected and awesome surprise.

Most of the stuff in the trailers is from the last third of the movie. I get why they’d sell it on the back of that. The last third is when all hell breaks loose and a lot of the best action happens. But it’s not the best part of the film. The first half of Riddick echoes the first half of I Am Legend and is great for some of the same reasons. Alone in the wild of a very dangerous planet, we watch as Riddick (Vin Diesel) picks himself up and goes from barely surviving to thriving. Along the way, he picks up one of the planet’s Great Dane-like dog creatures as an animal companion and friend. Riddick has always had soft spot for kids, women, and animals. It’s other men he doesn’t like so much. The mechanics of his survival are very well done, and there’s almost no dialogue with the exception of the bridging flashback that explains how Riddick got from becoming Lord Marshal of the Necromonger horde (a great ending that really elevates Chronicles) to being dumped on this unnamed planet.

Some people are going to be disappointed that Riddick had to cannibalize the Necromonger story that Twohy and Diesel had originally intended. In a somewhat perfunctory manner, the film tells a short story about Riddick’s years (approx. five of ’em) as the Lord Marshal. Softened by civilization but not the conqueror his predecessor was, Riddick languishes like a tiger in captivity. His compromises lead to betrayal as Vaako (Karl Urban) finally makes his move, dangling the prospect of helping Riddick find Furya, his home planet, as the bait. This is good stuff and the interplay between the two works well, with Urban doing a lot with very, very little. I’d like to see that movie of Riddick trying to turn the Necromongers to his own purposes, having Vaako working against him at every turn. There’s also one of the rare, nice shreds of world-building here as Vaako explains that records of Furya’s location were expunged, and he may know where it is because he’s been there.

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These guys have good, antagonist chemistry.

The exact nature of the Riddickverse has always been a bit foggy. Pitch Black seemed a lot less far into the future than Chronicles and Riddick feel. Characters still refer to Earth as if they’d just come from there, and they mention specific countries and things like they’d still be familiar. In the sequels this is less prevalent and it seems like the universe is a big place full of inhabited worlds, with humans having evolved at least partially into different forms (Elementals, Furyans, etc).

But I don’t think people really worry too much about the world-building stuff. I get hung up on it a bit but partially it’s because I think Riddick’s universe is an interesting one with a lot of potential that simply makes me want to no more. In terms of this review, that should be counted as praise. There’s always world-building in science fiction/fantasy that doesn’t make sense or has holes and is frustrating for that reason. It’s far less often that it’s elusive but still good enough to pull you in.

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Some of the shots in this film are gorgeous. Even though it’s pretty, the planet feels a lot more like it could be a real place than the setpieces-as-worlds in Chronicles.

When Riddick matches wits with the planet’s particular apex predator, he realizes that with rain comes an event not that different from the blackout in Pitch Black. This time, it’s water more than darkness that brings on the beasts. He realizes he’s going to have to get off the planet and so he sends an invitation to the mercenaries who he knows will still be out there waiting on the big payday he represents.

At this point, the movie partially forgets that Riddick was the Lord Marshal of a feared interstellar army. It also moves on from the awesome, alien “man vs. wild” movie it starts out as. This latter change is okay because most of the secondary characters are engaging and it does give the movie some emotional weight (more on this later) that it probably would have had a harder (if more interesting) time generating with just Riddick alone on a planet contemplating civilization and his divorce from it (I would definitely watch that movie though). The former is not so good. It seems like people would remember what became of Riddick, and his reputation would have changed from being what it was before the end of Chronicles. I think they missed an opportunity to grow his legend even more, but it’s not really a flaw in the film since it doesn’t derail the logic or act as a “plot hole”. If the film had leaned against Riddick’s background more than on the specific events of Pitch Black, it would have probably become one.

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Mercenaries are a fun element of this universe.

Riddick has always had a special relationship with mercenaries. Even in Pitch Black, it’s apparent that he doesn’t respect them and we can glean even in that film (before he flat out tells us in Chronicles) that it’s because they have no honor or code. That said, part of the point of throwing Riddick up against other people is that he isn’t actually 100% right about them. There’s always a few good people, even in a universe as rough as his. There’s people he can count on, but we’re given to understand that at the point of his latest adventure, there haven’t been any for too long.

Two very different groups of mercs show up. One is more rough and tumble, the kind of crew we’ve seen before, and is led by a particularly vicious asshole named Santana (Jordi Molla snarls and quips almost unintelligibly through his accent until he is awesomely killed). The other is more paramilitary, organized, and led by a much more appealing and competent fella that we find out is Boss Johns (Matt Nable), none other than the father of the Johns that had captured Riddick just prior to the events of Pitch Black. I have a minor quibble that Nable looks barely out of his forties (if that) and this makes it a stretch that this guy was Cole Hauser’s dad even 14 years ago. For this to be a reasonable thing, Boss Johns would have to be about 60 years old. Matt Nable is probably not 60 years old and he definitely doesn’t look it. That said, we don’t really know how old Johns was in Pitch Black nor do we know how longevity or vanity technology works in Riddick’s universe. So… a minor quibble it must remain.

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Johns’s right hand woman.

While Santana and his cutthroats just want the money for Riddick’s head, Johns wants to know what happened to his son and only Riddick truly knows. This feels like it’s leading to some kind of vengeance thing, and the movie goes there to play a bit, but it ends up being about a father’s closure. Johns doesn’t want to believe what Riddick tells him about his boy and for all that Nable looks like he must have been ten years old when he fathered the guy, he puts in a great bit of performance and carries all of the emotional weight of the film. He and Riddick working together and figuring out they can kind of trust each other is one of the high points of the film. I didn’t expect it and it was very welcome.

That said, with Johns comes Dahl (Katee Sackhoff) his “strong female protagonist” lieutenant. Sackhoff plays a stalwart variation of Starbuck and she’s perfectly serviceable in the film. The character says “I don’t fuck guys” and Santana tries to make her. She beats him up several times in the film and it’s a great running joke. In other words, Dahl all right as a character and she feels like she belongs.

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The creature design is great. The effects are really well done too.

Where things get weird is in the ways she becomes a sexual symbol. Not only does Sackhoff do a demi-nude scene that seems sort of gratuitous and meant to appeal directly to the nerds who watched BSG and for whom Sackhoff may be a bit of a sex symbol in her own right, but she is also subject to Riddick’s swinging dick bravado.

At one point this essentially sexless character says “I’m going to go balls deep in Dahl, but only when she asks me to sweet-like”. Given that Dahl tells the film’s biggest douchebag about her sexuality, it’s possible that she’s fronting a bit and trying to get by in a world of tough, insecure men. Riddick is the real deal, unlike the posturing “tin badges” surrounding him. Johns is too, which is probably why Dahl is loyal to him. As far as Riddick (franchise and this movie alike) comment on masculinity, it’s mostly to make this type of distinction. Even though it’s not in the movie, and therefore it unwisely does a “Riddick can cure lesbians” facepalm, the original script had Dahl only fronting gay for the same reasons why Jack pretended to be a boy in Pitch Black.

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Dahl could have and should have been a much bigger and better character.

Still, the movie goes there without adequately covering its ass and it looks like adolescent schoolboy wanking. Which feels especially awkward given the general cultural awareness of Vin Diesel’s sexuality controversies. He’s one of the many action stars in Hollywood history who has routinely been rumored as gay. Gay or not (none of our business anyway), Diesel rules the dark, the light, and everything fucking in between. But this film invites the controversy by its (possibly incidental) sexual politicking. That the movie turns into a bromance between Riddick and Johns feels only appropriate in this respect. At the same time, there’s no reason why Dahl isn’t just the perfunctory bop on the road of Riddick’s sexual conquests. If he is really Space Conan, Dahl may just be his Red Sonja. She’s definitely not his Valeria.

Okay, I’ll stop there. Too much Conan waxing. Point is, a lot of this subtext and how it comes off is dependent on what you bring into the movie. If you have no awareness of Diesel’s struggles with the rumors, this will just seem like a badass getting laid by another badass because of mutual badass appreciation. If you have no concern whatever for the struggles lesbians actually have in being taken seriously by men with alpha male complexes, that’s how you’ll read this. I think it’s a flaw that could easily have been avoided by keeping that bit of script about Dahl’s reasons for obfuscating her sexuality. If it had been left in, it would turn the point from being the awkward and potentially offensive thing it is into an acknowledgment of the difficulty women have in a landscape ruled by the male gaze (an idea very present in Riddick actually, but unfortunately perpetuated by Riddick in a way that reads as clumsy but unintented) and some of the unfortunate measures that must be taken to get around it. Then instead of curing her devilish gay, Riddick “getting the girl” in this case could have actually been about what the movie seems to want it to be about: mutual badass appreciation.

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The film is always walking a line between beings its own thing and being a call back to Pitch Black.

Still, at the end of the day Riddick is a way fucking better movie than anybody would have expected. It’s not the weird surprise Pitch Black was but it’s a better film. It’s also leaps and bounds better than Chronicles of Riddick. You respect what they tried to do, but I think the balance between larger mythos and tight, personal story that they found in Riddick serves the character better. If they can find a way to keep that going, I’d love to see a Riddick movie every couple of years. Why not? If he’s Space Conan, then he’s a man who has tons of interesting self-contained adventures all in service to a larger goal or meaning. For Riddick, it’s to get home. His longing for Furya is the one concession the film makes to the deeper emotional life of the character. Everything else comes out of interactions, especially with the dog. With the dog, they found the best way to get at where Riddick is when it comes to forming relationships. Jack worked well in Pitch Black but neither the dog or Kyra in Chronicles did half for showing that Riddick does have a soft spot what the dog in this movie does.

Which, by the way, if you’re a dog person… well, you will both love and hate this movie.

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I like to think that the dog is named Paul Walker.

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