Vin Diesel has bookended my summer with two great movies.
"Fast & Furious 6" helped kick things off and remains one of my absolute favorites of the season and now "Riddick" swoops in to close things out with a minor, but no less enjoyable, bang. I can honestly say I didn't quite expect this, but it pleases me to no end that it's happened.
Before I get into the meat of what makes "Riddick" such an entertaining flick, I have to say that it's heartening to see Diesel and director David Twohy continue these films. They're not wildly popular and this most recent film seemed to have been made through sheer force of will and little else. But it's obvious that these guys, Diesel especially (he filmed his "The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift" cameo for free in exchange for being given back the rights to the character of Riddick), have a genuine love for this devious anti-hero and that shows, even when the results aren't that great.
That said, "Riddick" succeeds in the ways that its predecessor (the maligned "The Chronicles of Riddick"), emphasizing that this is a character who works best in a low-key, contained fashon. This is a film that is very much in line with what made "Pitch Black" so great.
A brief flashback shows that (following the events of the pervious film) it didn't take long after Riddick assumed the throne as king of the Necromongers for his position to be usurped. And now our gravel-voiced anti-hero has been stranded on an unknown planet and left for dead, effectively putting Riddick back in the position that made him so interesting in the first place: being a ruthless, lethal survivor.
That survivalist nature takes front and center for the first third of the film and it's pretty impressive what Twohy and Diesel have accomplished here, spending a good 20 minutes or more as we simply listen to Riddick's narration and watch as he nurses himself back to health, befriends an alien dingo and learns to slay the planet's deadly fauna. It's surprisingly engaging, especially considering it could have been supremely dull, but Diesel is so invested in this character that you can't help but root for the guy and be pulled into watching him make his way.
It's kind of necessary, though, because once he comes across an abandoned outpost and hits a distress beacon summoning two groups of bounty hunters (he needs a ride off this rock, you see) we get a dramatic shift both in the narrative as well as the way we see Riddick. He's no longer just trying to survive, but actively antagonizing the mercenaries after him. He's back to being a ruthless killer, and that extended prologue helps make sure we really can root for someone who, when it comes down to it, is still little more than an escaped convict.
The remainder of the plot comes dangerously close to making this feel like a remake of "Pitch Black," what with the whole "being temporarily stuck on an alien world as bad weather and looming darkness bring out a horde of deadly creatures that only Riddick knows how to properly dispatch" angle. But thankfully, there's enough fresh personality here that it never fully tips in that direction.
Much of this is due to the mercs who almost make Riddick a supporting character for a good stretch. They're colorful and properly grizzled, providing just enough personality for it to matter once they slowly die off one by one.
And that's really what makes both this and "Pitch Black" so good. It's got personality to spare. Riddick is a pretty fantastic character in his own right. Yeah, he's a killer and obviously dangerous (the man is borderline impossible to kill), but he's also not bereft of a soul. There's more ticking under the surface than what he says or what others say about him and that's communicated almost entirely thanks to Diesel's performance. But he's also surrounded (in the first and third movies, at least) with characters who are interesting and notably more than just cookie cutter cannon fodder.
I also love how contained "Riddick" is. In a summer jam-packed with movies that have the fate of the world hanging in the balance, it's nice to have something like this where the only thing that matters to these guys is getting out alive. It's dusty and pulpy and takes itself seriously, but never too seriously.
"Riddick" was pretty surprising, honestly. "Chronicles of Riddick" made me wary of this at first, and it probably shouldn't work as well as it does given the nature of the main character, much less the odd structure and pacing. And yet it still stands as one of the most purely fun movies I've seen this summer. As I said earlier, the love Twohy and Diesel have for the character is obvious at every turn and that carries the film a long way. Here's hoping we get the further adventures of Richard B. Riddick further down the line.