The last time film fans saw Vin Diesel's Richard B. Riddick, the cold-blooded convict whose eyes have been altered to give him permanent night vision, he was seated on a throne in front of a huge army at the end of 2004's overstuffed would-be epic The Chronicles of Riddick, watching uncomfortably as they kneeled down to him as their new leader. It was an unexpected turn of events for the character, introduced in the tiny 1999 R-rated space thriller Pitch Black -- maybe there was some "art imitates life" in the way Universal suddenly bowed to Riddick as the next PG-13 blockbuster hero. The Chronicles of Riddick was a bomb in theaters, but Diesel's presence on facebook provided a venue for fans to campaign for more movies that returned to the indie roots of the original. Diesel and writer / director David Twohy tinkered on the script for nearly ten years before those cries were answered...so why is Riddick so sloppy?
Once again, Riddick finds himself stranded on an alien planet. In movie time, only five years have passed, during which his rule over the Necromongers has been uneasy at best. Secretly, he's desperate to locate his homeworld of Furya, but he can't identify a planet he's never seen. After an assassin tries and fails to kill him, he confronts Commander Vaako (Karl Urban), the intended successor to the throne. Vaako maintains his innocence, but reveals to Riddick he knows where Furya is. Riddick agrees to leave in exchange for a ride, but Vaako's right-hand man Krone (Andreas Apergis) brings him to a planet Riddick dubs "Not Furya", and abandons him in an avalanche. For awhile, Riddick is fine wandering the wasteland with a jackal creature he finds and tames, but the other wildlife is less friendly. Sensing his survival statistics are plummeting, he activates an emergency beacon on an abandoned ship, luring mercs looking to cash in on Riddick's head -- a "bounty doubled if returned dead."
Diesel's love of Dungeons & Dragons is well-established, and Riddick is clearly borne out of those interests. He and Twohy have a ton of fun building the universe, populating it with creatures and characters, and dropping Riddick in the middle. At the same time, the worlds and many of the people in the three Riddick movies to date aren't really that different -- another desert, another killer creature, another group of characters who fight amongst themselves as often as they fight with Riddick. Although Riddick successfully avoids being a hyped-up remake of Pitch Black (something that seemed possible from the trailers), there's still not much here that feels legitimately fresh, either for Riddick or for cinematic anti-heroes in general.
Diesel seems to be unaware of where his charisma lies. Through the middle of the last decade, before he briefly dropped out of the spotlight, he was constantly cast as gruff badasses in forgotten action movies like A Man Apart and Knockaround Guys, but his real charm is his goofy warmth. The Fast & Furious films wisely embrace his familial attitude, and Riddick is most fun to watch when it does too, mainly in his interactions with his jackal pet. Sadly, the majority of the character is made up of gruff, chip-on-the-shoulder speeches about how people count him out, or his wry observations about life always hitting hardest when one's down. It's either overwritten or underwritten: not simple enough to deliver smoothly, not complex enough to be witty. In dialogue, performance, and pace, Twohy also has Riddick move painfully slow. Riddick is supposed to be faster, smarter, and more skilled than those around him, but he speaks and moves like a snail, taking away from the "cool" factor. One of the best moments in the movie (involving a machete) has him showing some speed, but even it could stand to be quicker and more surprising.
In general, Riddick struggles to find a foothold at the script level. Two groups of people show up looking for Riddick, the first being an obnoxious crew led by Santana (Jordi Molla), a group of characters whose purpose is to butt heads with smarter ones. The smarter ones here are the gruff and mysterious Boss (Matt Nable), badass sniper Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), and the rest of Boss' well-trained crew. Between them, we get dialogue like "unjinxelate our janx!" and repeated scenes in which everyone overthinks Riddick's potential strategies for killing them to the point of tedium, only for Riddick to outsmart them anyway. Nable is decent, calling back to previous chapters in the series, while Sackhoff is the one genuine stand-out in the picture. The introduction of Riddick's sex drive is an odd and probably unwise addition to this chapter in the franchise, but she makes even that work, in spite of some icky implications (it would be nice to know for sure if their final conversation is a joke; I'm sure some people might be fairly uncomfortable if it isn't given what Dahl says elsewhere in the film).
The Riddick series is a bit of a patchwork quilt, tied together by three distinctly different movies, made in three different decades, under entirely disparate circumstances. Fans of the character will no doubt be pleased he's gotten another shot, but it's disappointing that after all this time, it still doesn't feel like Diesel and Twohy have settled completely on what it is they want to do with the character. While promoting Riddick, they stated they had a trilogy mapped out, but the uneven nature of this outing doesn't inspire much confidence in their grand scheme.
The Unrated Director's Cut
I didn't see Riddick in theaters, but a cursory skim of the TC reveals that more time spent with Riddick as the ruler of the Necromongers and an extended ending which more clearly sets up a sequel make up the bulk of the additional eight minutes of footage. Neither seems to significantly alter the tone or trajectory of the movie; they're just additional tidbits for the Riddick faithful.
Riddick places Diesel front-and center in the same way the film does, obscuring a simple backdrop of dusty desert sky by getting in close and filling the frame with the character. Works well enough. The 2-disc case sits inside an embossed foil slipcover that simplifies the rear artwork. A DVD and digital copy leaflet are both housed inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Riddick is an almost-perfect high-def experience. The sights and sounds of Not Furya are rendered with incredible precision and depth, from the golden mountain peaks (down to the tiniest pebbles) to the low, bassy growl of the jackals Riddick encounters. A great deal of the film, of course, takes place in the dark or low light, but crucial details remain visible, peeking out of the shadows. Scenes near the end, when Riddick and the other mercs encounter a horde of alien monsters, are a surround experience, between the thunderous roar of the mercs' flying motorbikes and the sea of creatures. In one or two shots, I admit I did notice just the tiniest, fleeting hint of banding, but it's a minor nitpick compared to the rest of the presentation.
A French DTS 5.1 track is also included, as well as a Dolby Digital 2.0 Descriptive Video Service soundtrack (for the theatrical cut only), English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles.
Surprisingly, there aren't that many extras on this Blu-Ray, perhaps thanks to the film's middling performance at the box office. Six featurettes make up the whole package, all presented in HD. They're all also sort of underwhelming, going through the motions but never engaging in the way similar featurettes on other recent Universal releases have been.
Three of the six are exclusive to the Blu-Ray edition of the film. "The Twohy Touch" (6:22) is a pretty broad look at the writer / director's contributions to the Riddick universe and the experience of working with him. "Riddickian Tech" (10:14) goes into both the design of the weapons and vehicles, and also the technical challenges of bringing the machines to life on a limited budget. Throughout the piece, production designer Joseph Nemec III guides the viewer through the sets built for the film, with some special effects technicians popping up to explain a few other items. Finally, "The World of Riddick" (10:50) has Twohy discussing his ideas for Not Furya, from the landscape to the creatures, complete with concept art. Cinematographer David Eggby talks about some of the challenges of shooting the entire movie in a warehouse using greenscreen to fill in the planet, and the integration of physical and digital effects to create the planet's deadly creatures.
Moving onto the standard features, "Vin's Riddick" (8:58) is not actually about the character, but about Diesel's role as a producer on the film, his unflagging efforts to bring the character back to the big screen, and what's changed for the character between The Chronicles of Riddick and Riddick. The cast also contribute glowing personal anecdotes about Diesel's enthusiasm. "Meet the Mercs" (10:44) is the expected discussion of the film's large ensemble cast, although there are also some slightly unexpected comments about wardrobe, hairstyle, and other aspects of the characters. Finally, "Riddick: Blindsided" (5:29) is a weird animated segment of the movie, most of which made it into the Director's Cut version of the film in live-action. The one extension (to even the DC version) is a bloody fight with a couple of guards.
Trailers for Rush, Homefront, Machete Kills, "Grimm", "Believe", and The Best Man Holiday played before the main menu on my disc, although the last two may have been streaming trailers.
I'm a Vin Diesel fan, and I have admiration for parts of both Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick. Sadly, I only have admiration for parts of Riddick, too, which seems a little underwhelming after a road to production that took nearly ten years. Other fans may find more to like about this third chapter, but, coupled with the somewhat paltry selection of bonus material, I advise a rental rather than a purchase.
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