Cool Is Nothing to Be Scared Of
Some things I have learned recently about the great Vin Diesel: his real name is Mark, he is a keen player of Dungeons & Dragons (the image of him bouncing up and down in his seat rattling polyhedrals and yelling 'I fireball the *******!' is a hard one to shake), and – if I understand correctly – he has basically remortgaged his house to raise the money to make his new movie Riddick (written and directed by David Twohy). This is presumably because the last movie set in this universe, a grandiose and slightly absurd Star Wars knock-off, did not exactly set fire to the box office – it may explain the nine year interval between installments, too.
Indeed, I'm slightly surprised they've made another one at all, but I suppose it's good for Diesel's career for him to headline a non-Fast & Furious picture (wouldn't do for him to get typecast – there's more to this guy than hulking, laid-back, gravelly-voiced action hero car thief anti-heroes, after all, he can do hulking, laid-back, gravelly-voiced action hero escaped space convict anti-heroes too. Isn't versatility an awesome thing?) and Diesel claims to be doing it 'for the fans'. Hmmm.
Anyway, Riddick opens with Diesel's preposterously omni-competent sociopath struggling to survive on a rocky hell-planet inhabited entirely by CGI beasties that want to eat him. For a nasty moment all this started to remind me of After Earth, but it is thankfully bereft of life lessons and Diesel is allowed free rein to display his considerable charisma. The film has quite a bold structure and for quite a long time the film is just about Riddick doing various things to prove what a badass he is (improvised DIY surgery, that sort of thing) and how he comes to feel fairly comfortable in his new environment (although there is a fairly lengthy flashback which we will return to shortly).
However, Riddick discovers the planet is shortly about to turn even less hospitable than it currently is and activates the distress signal he discovers in an abandoned outpost. No fewer than two teams of bounty hunters turn up in search of the considerable bounty on Riddick's shiny head, amongst them characters played by Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, and Katee Sackhoff (wasn't she in a new version of Buck Rogers or something?), and the film takes another interesting turn as Riddick practically vanishes for the whole of the second act: this part of the film focuses on the tensions between the two groups of hunters and their increasingly fraught attempts to capture or kill Riddick before he picks them all off one by one.
Eventually, though, time runs out and Riddick and his hunters are forced to work together as the true scale of the threat from the local ecosystem becomes clear. We're very much back in the same territory as the original Pitch Black here – a small group of under-equipped people forced to co-operate against encroaching alien nasties.
Well, I must say that given a choice between Vin Diesel starring in a Star Wars knock-off and an Aliens knock-off, I'll choose the latter every time – there's a sense in which Riddick really is a vanity project, in that it's all about the main character and star, and this works much better in a film with a tight focus than a sprawling space opera epic.
That said, those fans to whom Diesel alluded – hang on, is there a large and vocal fanbase for Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick? If so they must operate entirely off my personal radar – anyway, in some ways the film is clearly written with an eye on the supposed fanbase, because the last film ended with Riddick being declared emperor of the galaxy or something similar (I haven't seen it since its original release), and Diesel and Twohy feel obliged to respect this. And so, rather than simply have a throwaway line in the voiceover explaining how Riddick used to be Lord High whatever but was slung out for spending all his time disporting himself with concubines, there is a relatively lengthy and elaborate flashback, in which Karl Urban shows up to reprise his role. I suspect this will be slightly baffling to audiences who don't remember or haven't seen the other films – there is some blatantly gratuitous T&A from the concubines, too.
However, this is Riddick's only major slip up, for the rest of it is a engagingly crunchy and tense SF action movie. I suppose it would have been preferable to have at least one major character who wasn't a sweaty badass, and the beat where the enormity of Riddick's personal awesomeness is communicated to us by two other characters telling each other how awesome he is is slightly overused. And the scenes intended to give Riddick the faintest of softer sides end up looking slightly absurd set against the towering machismo of the rest of it, as well – but on the whole this is slick and entertaining.
You know what, I haven't seen many Vin Diesel films but the ones I have seen I've enjoyed a lot (I am, naturally, particularly looking forward to seeing him take on Jason Statham in the next Fast & Furious), and Riddick is no exception. It's a relatively modest production with equally modest aims, but it hits the targets it sets for itself with great ease. Whether or not I want to see yet another movie in this milieu I don't know, but for the time being I hope that Vin Diesel gets to keep his house and makes enough off this movie to buy a special glittery d20 or two. Good fun.