Pecs in Space: Riddick's back, but not Vin Diesel's charm

Sep 5, 2013 at 4:00 am
Vin Diesel stars as Riddick, in the follow-up to 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick.
Vin Diesel stars as Riddick, in the follow-up to 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick. © 2013 - Universal Pictures

Richard B. Riddick — Dick to his friends, if he had any — is an intergalactic meathead who's glowered through three movies, two video games and a cartoon. He's both the luckiest and unluckiest man alive: lucky because he's impossible to kill, unlucky because everyone keeps trying. In the opening, near-silent sequence of Riddick, the laconic sequel to 2004's overblown schlock opera The Chronicles of Riddick, our hero (Vin Diesel) is nearly slain by a space vulture, a space hyena and several space eels. "There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days," he growls. Eh, in his earlier movies he's already survived an asteroid accident, nocturnal monsters, some baddies called the Necromongers, a broiling sun, a subterranean prison and a front-row seat for Dame Judi Dench's most regrettable role, as an Air Elemental named Aereon. On his scale, a killer space eel is just an excuse for sushi.

Pitch Black, the first Riddick flick, is guilty of launching Diesel's career. It's a curious accomplishment. Diesel has managed to steer one of the most solid franchises in contemporary Hollywood (not this one, if you have to ask) despite being the oddest movie star since Danny DeVito. A man made from two potatoes and a nose, Diesel is a charismatic lump whom the camera flattens into mush. When allowed to smile, his movies make $786 million. Yet most directors — including three-time Riddick helmer David Twohy — mistakenly equate macho with monotone, forcing him to spend the film lumbering around with his lips pursed like a peevish librarian.

To further handicap Diesel's acting, Riddick is saddled with CGI night-vision eyes that are as capable of emotion as two blue marbles. And when the sun is up, which in this adobe-baked landscape is most of the time, his eyes are so sensitive that he hides them with goofy goggles that, combined with his broad shoulders and shaved scalp, make him look like the universe's most bitchin' diver.

Stripped of eyes and mouth, Diesel has nothing to act with but his fists. Luckily, he doesn't have to bother. After Chronicles flopped, Twohy rightly realized that audiences don't care about Riddick's back-story. If you dodged the first two movies, here's all you need to know: Riddick is a wanted killer in search of his home planet, Furya. His current location: a planet he calls Not Furya. (Curiosity isn't his strong suit.) To escape, Riddick reveals his location to a global network of bounty hunters — here, mercenaries are as commonplace as pizza deliverymen — and waits until he and some other bad things can kill off enough of his would-be killers to steal their ship. Behold, the entirety of the plot.

However, instead of one ship, he gets two: a vessel captained by the morally ambiguous Boss Johns (Matt Nable), and a second led by the Spanish rogue Santana (Jordi Mollà), who loves fancy swords and sneering the word "puto." Wait — we're on a planet with seven-foot space scorpions, but Spain still exists? If that makes your head explode, just pretend that in this universe, planet names are just mistranslations of places on Earth. "Furya" is really Alienese for the Jersey Shore, which explains both Riddick's wife-beater and why our Snooki is half-Ewok.

It's murderer versus murderers, with Riddick facing off against eleven bounty hunters who include a tremulous Christian (Nolan Gerard Funk), a badass lesbian (Katee Sackhoff) and a giant (wrestler Dave Bautista, who's like The Rock with a '90s goatee). The only reason to root for Riddick is that his name is on the ticket stub. But he's so dull and the hunters so weird that we're literally cheering for the movie to kill off its personality, one throat slash at a time.

Instead, we must pan for scraps of pleasure — an MRE ration labeled Crab Enchilada Hash, a scene where Diesel poses naked on a cliff like a truck-stop coyote, the way half of his attacks look like rhythmic gymnastics — while trying not to get so riled up by all the rape jokes that we spin around and stab our seatmate. Alas, poor Sackhoff. Nothing says Strong Female Character like a savage babe who spends most of the film getting sexually harassed. Haven't these guys seen how handy she is with a sniper rifle?

There's a swagger in Riddick's simplicity. With only two or three actual plot points and a whole lot of padding, Twohy has room for a five-minute gag about an exploding locker or an extended sequence where Riddick trains a space puppy. Pared down to the action-movie essentials — a gun, a grunt and a flash of boob — it's like an R-rated kids' book where we're just supposed to grok the grisly pictures. Spoiler alert! Here's an advance screenplay draft of the fourth Riddick flick: "See Dick run. Kill, Dick, kill."