Gone are the soul-snatching Colm Feore and wind-goddess Judi Dench days of yore: Riddick, arriving in theaters on Friday, brings the Vin Diesel franchise back to its roots and wipes the slate clean, without completely ignoring earlier events.
Diesel's return to the world of Riddick is essentially a standalone adventure, albeit with some connections to previous installments of the series. The story begins shortly after The Chronicles of Riddick, with Diesel's antihero waking up on the surface of an unknown planet with a bad headache, a broken leg and other injuries. We learn Riddick was betrayed by the Necromongers (the zealous empire he inherited at the end of Chronicles), and left for dead on desolate planet.
It's not a deserted world, however, as there are indigenous creatures and deadly forces of nature that Riddick must conquer in order to survive. Over time, he devises a way to get off the planet, but not without drawing the attention of some seriously bad individuals.
In Riddick, Diesel and franchise writer/director David Twohy tap back into what makes the protagonist great: a tight and contained setting, and a story that's more about immediate survival than it is about fulfilling prophecies and preventing genocide. The movie sports more than a few key references to Pitch Black and Chronicles, some more overt than others, but at the end of the day, all the viewer needs to know is laid out in clear terms: there are badasses, and there are legendary badasses. Riddick is the latter.
Without Diesel, there would be no Riddick. The star makes the movie, bringing massive presence to the goggles-wearing fugitive in each and every scene. His command of the character is infectious. Even the scenes he's not in are made all the more powerful because you know the man who's lurking in the shadows. It's not an Oscar-winning performance by any means, but it's a fun one. Diesel makes his enthusiasm for the character clear with every beat of the film.
But Diesel isn't alone in making Riddick work. It takes nearly 30 minutes to see another human face, but the grunts who file in to find the escaped convict are an amusing mix of characters. There's Jordi Molla as the box-wielding, trash-talking Santana, future Guardians of the Galaxy star Dave Bautista as a gum-chewing mountain of a man named Diaz, Battlestar Galactica veteran Katee Sackhoff as a Starbuck-esque badass named Dahl, and Matt Nable as a weary soldier with a score to settle against Riddick. These characters (and others) shoulder the narrative weight during the long stretches of Riddick where the protagonist is absent, and they do it admirably. Some of these characters are little more than cannon fodder, but others add menacing texture to what's already a deeply detailed world.
Indeed, even without a name or much context for its alien inhabitants, the unknown world at the heart of Riddick is expertly realized; it looks great and it feels real. The various beasts, inspired by dogs and vultures, among other creatures, are presented without much explanation. Twohy's script doesn't take the time to spell out what these monsters are, and instead presents the viewer with an opportunity to fill in the gaps. In some cases, more information would've been nice, but in other cases, it's just as entertaining figuring out what Riddick is up against without any overt help.
Riddick looks better and feels more authentic than any other film in the series, an impressive feat given its low budget of about $40 million. That's a far cry from the $100 million it cost to make Chronicles of Riddick, and a decent step up from the $23 million budget of Pitch Black. And every cent of that $40 million is on the screen, from high-level creature work to strong and sound production design. Scaling back the budget from Chronicles keeps Riddick from spreading itself too thin and veering off into unnecessarily "epic" storylines. Nearly doubling the budget of Pitch Black allows Riddick to achieve a similar tone and a greatly enhanced look. .
However, Riddick isn't without its weaknesses. There are valid arguments that it's a bit too similar to Pitch Black, and there are some cheesy moments, some scenes that go on for far too long and scenes that may have been best left on the cutting room floor. Maybe the story is too simple; maybe the dialogue is stiff and bizarre in places.
But the movie also features Vin Diesel cutting alien-scorpion-things in half with a skeleton-ax and outsmarting heavily armed mercenaries at nearly every turn.
In other words, Riddick does what Riddick movies do best. It butchers bad guys, it drops some well-placed F-bombs, and it has a whole lot of fun all the while. What more can you ask for?