Monday, September 16, 2013

The Cinema File #249: "Riddick" Review

Has there ever been a more unlikely trilogy than the Riddick movies? Whether you love them or hate them, I don’t think anyone who sat down to watch Pitch Black way back in the year 2000 ever thought of it as the kind of movie that would ever lead to a franchise, and after the dismal reception of its sequel The Chronicles of Riddick, the idea that we’d be sitting here in 2013 with a third film just seems insane to me. I’m not sure if Vin Diesel has way more star power than I’ve ever given him credit for, or if we’re just so starved for a tent pole action series not based on a comic book that two sleeper home video hits in a row is enough to justify a third one, but whatever the reason, now we have Riddick, again, in a movie just called Riddick, because apparently he’s so popular, the name alone should be enough. Am I missing something here?

Riddick follows the titular bald bad ass once again on the run from bounty hunters while stranded on a desolate alien world filled with ravenous monsters he can beat mercilessly to death with his bare hands. The name has been simplified as if to dispense with any pretense that there’s anything other than the title character worth caring about, much like it dispenses with any of the unnecessary plot left over from the previous films. The last Riddick movie turned our monosyllabic Snake Plisskin wannabe into a full blown futuristic Conan, savage warrior king, but if you liked any of that stuff, you’ll only get about five minutes of it before we’re off and running on a new adventure. If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess that like the best Die Hard movies, these films might have been written as completely different movies and then changed to fit the Riddick mold, but then if I didn’t know any better, I’d say this one was just Pitch Black without the novelty that made that movie fun.

The plot is almost exactly the same, except that this time the gimmick of the monster is far less interesting (instead of coming out at night, they only come out when it rains!). The movie even tries to hang a lampshade on the retread by having one of the new characters be related to a character from the first film, but when this would-be antagonist dramatically announced his name, I didn’t even remember the other character well enough to pick up on the significance of the moment, and only realized it the next day thanks to Wikipedia. If this had been the second film in the series and The Chronicles of Riddick had been the third, I wouldn’t have minded as much, and truth be told my big problem with the last movie was that it was too different from Pitch Black and presented too intricate a mythology to follow a film with such a simplistic action premise. The problem is, once you take the time to expand the universe as much as they did in the second movie, throwing all of that away and just re-doing the first one again makes both of them even more insulting to my intelligence.

There is a classic scene towards the end of Lethal Weapon 2 where Riggs finds himself with a dislocated shoulder and is forced to pop it back into place by violently slamming it against a hard surface. The visceral impact of this moment served to confirm for anyone still on the fence that this guy was hardcore. Riddick does something very similar in the first few minutes of this eponymous film, setting a broken leg between two rocks. That this comes so soon and not as the culmination of a hard fight proving his meddle may not seem like much, but in retrospect I think it says a lot about this series - it wants Riddick to be a bad ass anti-hero, and all the tropes are there, but they're too lazy to earn it. There are no other characters in this movie, just people assigned to stand around and remark on how cool Riddick is. It gets so ridiculous that Katie Sackhoff shows up purely to point out that she's a militant lesbian, only so that in the end Riddick can convert her with the power of his awesome. This kind of thing works with James Bond or the Doctor, but only because they have a history of being awesome, and not just being referred to as such, but Riddick isn't anywhere near this level yet, and the presumption that he is makes the whole affair seem more silly than anything.

That being said, by the admittedly low standards of popcorn sci-fi action flicks, I can't say the movie isn't passably entertaining, and really, its not like there are going to be many people going into this expecting anything more than what the film delivers. The action sequences are effective even if I wanted at least one or two more of them, and this clearly seems like a passion project for Diesel who comes across like he's having a lot of fun putting the goggles back on. I was reminded of the one good scene in After Earth where Will Smith fights the monstrous horde with a bow staff, and this movie feels like that scene, just over and over again, which is strangely both tedious and somehow satisfying. The few glimmers of genius like a dying disemboweled creature so hungry it tries to eat its own intestines or Riddick's kinship with a razor toothed hyena are mostly buried by increasingly mindless punching and slicing, but then I gather that's the whole point. At its best, I would liken Riddick to an old school beat-em-up video game like Streets of Rage, cathartic in its violent simplicity and ultimately no more intellectually complicated than you would really want. Even given the sci-fi trappings that I usually demand better of, to lambaste Riddick for not being smarter is like lambasting The Fast And The Furious series for the same thing. Honestly, what would be the point?

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