Friday, September 20, 2013

Review: Riddick

If you want to see a textbook example of how a little success can lead to terrible excess take a look at the movie Pitch Black and its sequel The Chronicles of Riddick.  The former is a low budget action/thriller that grew into a cult classic by masterfully weaving isolationism and anti-heroism into a taut space narrative.  And because of that success director David Twohy was given the green light for a massive $200M+ budget to build a grand sci-fi space epic centered on Pitch Black’s protagonist, Riddick.  As it turns out, the increase in budget was indirectly proportional to the quality of the movie as Chronicles flat out stunk; leaving the franchise dead-in-the-water.  Only nothing is really dead in Hollywood and thus nine years later, Riddick has made its way into theaters.

The plot of the movie finds the title character (Vin Diesel) stranded on some unknown planet in what can best be described as a hostile environment.  How he got to that place and why he is so gruesomely injured is explained in a series of flashbacks that connects this movie to its predecessor.  When a series of environmental shifts makes the planet no longer safe to inhabit, Riddick sets off a beacon to attract mercenaries to his location in order to escape the planet.  Death and destruction ensue.

Right off the bat, I have to give director David Twohy credit for going into this film with full understanding of why the first film succeeded and the second tanked.  It is clear from the scope, plot, and pacing, that he and his creative team are trying to get back to Pitch Black’s winning formula.  Only they are a bit too zealous about it.  While it’s not a carbon copy in the same way that The Hangover 2 is to The Hangover, it’s a little too close for comfort.  So as you watch Riddick unfold, you are getting a distinct “been-there-done-that” feeling.

The second problem with this film is that the creative team is so intent on distancing themselves from the stink that is The Chronicles of Riddick that they dedicate the first half of the film to scaling the narrative down to one of pure isolationism.  Sure there are CG monsters wreaking havoc from time to time, but most of this is all about Vin Diesel.  And with all do respect, he is not nearly enough of an actor to pull this off.  Don’t get me wrong.  He is very entertaining in the right role (Fast & Furious), but Tom Hanks in Castaway he is not.

Still, the movie is not all bad.  While the balance of the film is questionable, Twohy does a nice job of pacing the more tense scenes and likewise does a good job framing the action.  No one will mistake this film for a deep artistic portrait with thoughtful character development, but the narrative does allow for some fun interplay between the supporting players; a most necessary plot element as there’s nothing like a bit of comic relief to mask whatever is ailing a flawed action film. 

Because the film has its short comings its easy to put that blame on Vin Diesel, especially because the first act is all on him.  But really, I think it’s a case of misusing his talent.  He’s not a great actor, but the Riddick character is proven to be something well within his range.  So why then does this not work the way it should?  The simple answer is that it is just too much Diesel.  In the original film, Diesel’s character spends the first half of the movie in the background and in the shadows lurking, while Radha Mitchell and a capable cast of characters push the plot forward.  And if the creative team should have learned anything from the second movie (besides the pitfalls of big budget excess), it’s that the character of Riddick loses its venom when you peel back the layers and over expose him.  Unfortunately, that’s one error that wasn’t corrected.

The supporting cast fares a bit better but not on the up and up.  Other than Katee Sackhoff, no one turns in a performance that would be deemed good, but Jordi Molla, Dave Bautista, and Bokeem Woodbine are entertaining in a way that is befitting of a campy B-movie.  It’s not always smooth and often times their scenes are almost darn near clunky, but they deliver some of the better chuckle inducing one-liners.  As for Matt Nable, he plays things very straight, but is perhaps the most uneven of all the performances.  Sure, there is supposed to be an element of ambiguity to his motives, but at times it feels like Nable is completely lost in what he is trying to accomplish.

So if I had to rank the three movies, I would place Riddick between Pitch Black and Chronicles, but closer to the latter in regards to quality.  It’s a movie that never had to be made and probably got the go ahead only because Diesel headlines Universal's cash-cow-of-a-franchise - Fast & Furious.  I definitely would not suggest you run out to the cinema to watch this, but if you’ve seen the first two movies then I would not blame you if you were to give this a look.  It won’t make you hate the franchise more and will give you a measure of closure (as if you really needed it).  But if you’ve never seen any of the movies, I would suggest you go out and rent Pitch Black and forget that any sequels were ever made.   The movie works well as a stand-alone flick and will leave you entertained.

Standout Performance:  Katee Sackhoff.  No stranger to the sci-fi sphere, Sackhoff channels the snark and grit that made her a fan favorite on Battlestar Galactica and uses it to turn in the best performance in the film.


Post a Comment