I’m late to the Riddick saga, the franchise of films and video games that have employed actor Vin Diesel for the better part of the last decade. That makes the opening scenes of this new movie, simply called Riddick after its title character, a bit confusing. There’s a sense we need to know something about this guy and his past. His eyes glow, he sticks pins into his legs to set a broken bone, he kills beasts with his bare hands, and slips into a steaming pool and holds his breath for minutes on end. Obviously, the guy is a bad ass, but who is he?
The enigmatic nature of Riddick seems to be part of the character’s appeal. He is an outlaw, a survivalist, a man tested and forged by extreme conditions. He’s cruel and pragmatic, and yet flashes glimpses of empathy and mercy. He’s part Ajax and part that jerk at the 24 Hour Fitness who knows he’s flexing in a mirror visible from the street. In the new film, he is stranded on a strange, unhospitable planet. No water, no food, severely wounded, and surrounded by oversized wild dogs and scorpion-like beasts that dwell in muddy pools. For the first chunk of the film, we are merely submerged in this world, watching Riddick survive, and what is surprising is that, like those survival scenes in Conan The Barbarian, the entire ordeal is captivating. Riddick captures a pup and trains it, spends years eating eels while he trains to kill the scorpion beasts. Sure, much is goofy gory and there are plot discontinuities everywhere (all he has to do is walk up some stairs, and while he seems the strongest guy ever, he never scales the rocks around the beast that guards them). But that’s, in part, the appeal of Riddick. Like Conan, it doesn’t focus on the things we typically expect from story, instead honing in on the intense details that satisfy the genre.
Eventually the showdown with the alien creatures on the hostile planet transitions into a showdown with the bounty hunters Riddick summons via an emergency beacon he conveniently stumbles upon. This sets up what is almost an entirely new movie. A cast of mercenaries stake out the outlaw while Riddick sets out traps for them. The film plays off the motivations of its various characters, using the psychological interplay to create tension and advance plot. And to its credit, Riddick manages to set in motion a rather amusing chess game/ cat and mouse chase that doesn’t feel as predictable as it actually is because the trappings – the style of the imagined world; the script’s blunt, cartoonish dialogue; and the Marvel-sized personalities – are novel enough.
Enjoying Riddick requires a forgoing of much of what you bring into a movie theater, including expectations of plot continuity, character development, storylines that evolve and explore representations of real people. Like its main character, Riddick is a blunt tool, fueled by its boyish love of guts and breasts and a noir-ish appetite for stilted language and corny one-liners. Still, the film manages to do its most basic job well enough, draw us in and keep us hooked on each twist and turn of the situation. It’s not the most charming movie out there, but it gets the job done. Like Riddick, this franchise is a survivalist.