Riddick: Vin Diesel’s Passion Project

Vin Diesel, Katee Sackhoff, Karl Urban

Is it a good movie? No, not really. It won’t make any post-Academy snub lists. The effects are on a budget, the acting is high school theater guild, and it’s not scary. It’s more or less by-the-numbers and familiar, made for young males. But I liked it. It was funny at times and passably enjoyable from a dumbly entertaining perspective.

The thing to remember is that this is a passion project for Vin Diesel. He likes the character a lot and has as much to do with the franchise’s longevity as anyone, having been directly involved in the production of animated interquel film Dark Fury and the tie-in video games Escape from Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena, all well-received. This is most assuredly his show, and it’s easy to see he’s happy to command attention and carry a movie, not stand in a line with models like in  (The) Fast and (the) Furious (n). It’s also Universal Pictures’ modest thank-you card to Diesel for continuing to make the obscenely lucrative Fast and Furious films, more popular (and admittedly much more enjoyable) than they have any right to actually be. I shudder to imagine Paul Walker’s pet project.

Riddick is then a film for its fans, of which Diesel is patient zero. It marks a return to formula, with Pitch Black‘s claustrophobic feel and constrained premise. It continues the misadventures of killer mercenary and convict Richard B. Riddick, now double-crossed and left for dead. He’s a capable anti-hero, dangerous, all-seeing in the dark. It’s definitely smaller than the previous The Chronicles of Riddick, a sequel which was passable but incongruously bloated and wanton with it’s saga-establishing intentions. The filmmakers clearly took fan’s notes and produced the paired-down, linear Pitch Black-esque adventure they wanted and budget dictated. It probably won’t draw many newcomers to the franchise but then it doesn’t really have to. Diesel, director Twohy and company have realized they can work cheaply and stick to a zoomed-in scope. They’ll settle into the Saw model: Make ’em cheap, make ’em many. There’ll be more Riddick’s.

The film wastes no time in reestablishing Riddick’s character, which was nicely efficient. If you’re uninitiated, it’s not for you. Diesel’s Riddick has been broken, beaten, and marooned on an inhospitable wasteland, having been coerced into giving up the throne he earned in Chronicles. He wants to go home; he wants to learn the truth about his past and the fate of his people. It’s a logical setup following the previous installment and features a 30-second return by a familiar Karl Urban, having since raised his star considerably in the interim. (He’s not quite the biggest name here, but he’s close.) Katee Sackhoff also appears. Science fiction fans will know her as Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. And then there’s everyone else, who is interchangeable and boring.

One of the main problems with Riddick is that the script isn’t quite sure who exactly to focus on for too long. There isn’t a protagonist in the classic sense, one thing Chronicles got right. We’re clearly on Riddick’s side and it’s Diesel’s big movie, but in order to depict experienced hired guns getting dispatched themselves we need pathos, which takes a bit of time to establish. However I don’t care about these idiots and it’s not why I paid for this movie. Like in a horror, the killer isn’t scary when he’s familiar to the audience and who they’re supposed to relate to. And Diesel disappears for like, a good fifteen minutes in the film’s middle as we follow his hunters and their internal relationships. Otherwise it’s necessary to color these characters deeper in order to feel something when they die, but here it isn’t. The story’s about Riddick, not them.

This is the real drawback to remaking Pitch Black. In that film we weren’t totally rooting for Richard Riddick because he was a mysterious, volatile wild card and the perceived antagonist to a group of vulnerable travelers. We wanted them to make it out alive in spite of Riddick’s instigating. Here, we’re not on their side; the former bad guy is now supposed to be our hero. Terminator 2 pulled off this switch masterfully, Riddick didn’t.

As a result it plays a bit unfocused as characters you don’t care for get too much screen time and those that make the film work are underused. Katee Sackhoff’s character for example was a role probably written with a less well-known actor in mind. She’s one of the film’s sparks of life. But her spunky sister-to-a-family-of-brothers-type disposition is diluted by having very little to say early on and zero entrance with regard to her star power. Her presence becomes stronger as the problems mount and other characters remember she’s there. But I expected a reasonably familiar actor to have more to do initially. Again, a failure of the script.

In regards to the movie’s obvious benefactor, I like Vin Diesel. He strikes me as the sort of movie star that seems to have reluctantly settled into a career that works but never got the prestige he originally sought for himself. He’s grateful and positive about where he is, which he should be, having relatively hit the jackpot in terms of the rest of us. But I suspect as a young talent he didn’t expect to end up almost exclusively an action hero. Maybe he just doesn’t have the dramatic chops and that’s been conveyed to him in many an audition, I don’t know. But I would be surprised if he showed up in a future Expendables movie because I think he fashions himself a slightly more legitimate actor, not ready to lampoon his status. Maybe he’s the only guy not in on the joke, but he comes off as earnest and wanting to do something he loves.

So I liked Riddick. It wasn’t any more than it had to be. It was small in scope and fun; it was loud but not too bombastic. Does Vin Diesel really need my money? No. But I can respect his wanting to realize a passion.

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