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Riddick: Assault on Planet 13

by admin September 6, 2013 6:00 am
Riddick: Assault on Planet 13

With the re-energized Fast and the Furious franchise having returned him to pop culture relevance (however briefly), Vin Diesel and his regular collaborator, writer/director David Twohy, are seizing the opportunity to take one more run at Richard B. Riddick, the intergalactic, night vision-enhanced bad-ass they originated in 2000's surprise hit Pitch Black and effectively killed off (metaphorically, though not literally) in 2004's not-so-surprise bomb The Chronicles of Riddick. The secret to Pitch Black's success is that it plays like a lean, mean John Ford Western dressed up in sci-fi clothing, Stagecoach in outer space if you will, with Riddick functioning as its Ringo Kid -- the cool-as-hell antihero who is technically part of the larger ensemble, but gets the best lines and the best bits of action. The bigger-budgeted sequel, on the other hand, proved to be as muddled and convoluted and the original was clean and elegant, tying Riddick up in a confounding mythology that tried and failed to position him as some kind of Conan figure. The third film, simply titled Riddick, tries to split the difference, once again embracing a stripped-down approach to genre filmmaking (one that shares a lot in common with another filmmaker named John… Carpenter, rather than Ford), but still trying to show how its title character fits into the larger futureverse Diesel and Twohy are laboring to create.

Before getting down to business, Riddick opens with a bit of housecleaning, sweeping away the loose ends left over from Chronicles, which concluded with Riddick essentially becoming Pope for a race of deep space religious nuts. He's barely begun his reign before growing weary of the responsibility and more or less invites his own coup at the hands of a former nemesis (Karl Urban, doing Twohy a solid by appearing in an ultra-brief cameo), after which he's deposited on a distant desert planet to die. Instead though, this world becomes his training ground for a Rocky III-like comeback, as he sheds his "soft" self and re-emerges as the rough, tough Fightin' Furyan we met in Pitch Black. This sequence, which lasts roughly fifteen minutes and unfolds with no dialogue save for the odd line of extraneous voiceover, is actually a good deal of fun in a trashy way, with Diesel (whose typically at his most charismatic when he's not talking) stalking the landscape, befriending some alien life forms (specifically a multi-colored space mutt) and killing others (some kind of plus-sized pond monster) in hand-to-hand combat.

Just when you think Riddick may become Twohy's version of Into the Wild (and boy, would I have enjoyed the hell out of that), an approaching storm -- and the monsters that accompany it -- convinces Riddick that it's time to get the hell off this rock. So he activates a distress beacon in a conveniently located bunker and brings in the cavalry: two competing teams of bounty hunters each eager to claim the reward that accompanies capturing and/or killing him. (The bounty is higher if they opt for the latter.) It's here that the Carpenter touch really kicks in, as the rest of Riddick becomes an unofficial remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (itself a then-modern day version of a Western), albeit a remake where the audience is encouraged to root for the precinct-assaulting bad guy, rather than the precinct-defending cops.

In true B-movie fashion, the bounty hunters are characterized by specific traits rather than three fully-rounded dimensions. For example, Santana (Jordi Mollá) is the rape-happy swordsman; Diaz (WWE personality Dave Bautista) is the mountain of muscle; Johns (Matt Nable) is the professional veteran; and Dahl -- pronounced "Doll" -- (Katee Sackhoff) is the butch lesbian. (A quick aside about Sackhoff; she's a terrific addition to the franchise, demonstrating more 'tude and muscle than even the leading man. But it's dispiriting to see her character marginalized and objectified as the movie goes along, repeatedly put in the position of fending off threats of sexual assault and Riddick's blunt advances. That's particularly disappointing when you remember that Twohy centered Pitch Black around Radha Mitchell's Carolyn Fry, a similarly confident, capable and no-nonsense woman who wasn't regularly subjected to the leering gaze of the men around her. Hell, that was the same role Sackhoff played on Battlestar Galactica for four seasons, which makes her treatment here all the more unfortunate.) The cat-and-mouse game between Riddick and his would-be capturers occupies the bulk of the movie's bloated mid-section (during which Diesel curiously spends a lot of time offscreen), until good ol' Dick decides to stop messing around and gets down to the business of getting off-world before whatever's coming hits with full force.

Although Riddick is thankfully free of the overbearing mythology that strangled Chronicles, it also doesn't have the relentless forward momentum of Pitch Black, where the characters had to get from Point A to Point B in total darkness, menaced on all sides by nocturnal critters. A siege movie at heart, this installment doesn't take the characters anywhere, instead forcing them to wait around until danger shows up on their doorstep. And when that danger finally arrives, it proves entirely underwhelming: a squad of flesh-eating lizards poorly rendered by some bargain-basement CG that lack the personality -- and more importantly, the menace -- of the Pitch Black creatures. And yet, even with all its obvious deficiencies, there's some modest entertainment to be derived from Riddick; Twohy and Diesel have an obvious affection for the style and lingo of the pulpy sci-fi stories of the '50s (as well as the dirt-cheap exploitation movies of the '70s) and bring some of that to bear here in the design of the planet and Riddick's man-of-few-words demeanor. I also have to underline again how much I enjoyed watching Sackhoff go toe-to-toe with Diesel, even with Twohy's script undermining her at almost every turn. I'm not sure that Riddick is an effective argument in favor of continuing Riddick's solo adventures, but it's a more fitting conclusion to his chronicles than the previous movie.

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