Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Riddick (2013)

In the colorful lingo of one of its cut-throat mercenaries, Riddick (2013) takes “the jinx off the janx.”  

This third cinematic installment in the mythos that began with Pitch Black (2000) and continued -- shakily -- in Chronicles of Riddick (2004) -- is a thrilling and determined return to basics.   The story of a king in exile, Riddick is a spare drama that does away with the grandiose empire-building of the second franchise installment, and explores instead the next step in its anti-hero’s continuing personal evolution.  

Riddick (Vin Diesel) in this film must remember “who he was” before he lost the throne -- before he became “civilized” -- and I can’t help but believe that this is a deliberate metaphor for director David Twohy’s own growth and development as an artist as well. 

Specifically, this film remembers precisely why audiences loved Riddick in the first place.  

It’s not because he was destined to become ruler of the universe.  It’s because Riddick is a person who is always counted out by society, always “checked off the list,” and always left for dead…but who keeps fighting nonetheless.  The film's brilliant first shot -- a vulture moving in for the kill, over Riddick's apparent corpse -- expresses this dynamic beautifully.

I’ve read that some critics felt that the special effects aren’t that great in Riddick.  I’ve also read reviews that suggest the film plays like a pale copy of Pitch Black (2013).  

Well, to my eyes, the special effects look pretty solid here, at least a degree or two stronger than those featured in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004).  One CGI creature in the film – an alien dog -- boasts a lot of life and personality.  You come to care about the animal’s well-being, which is a testament to how well it is visualized.

And while this sequel plainly recalls Pitch Black, it does so with cunning purpose.  

Specifically, Riddick offers an interesting twist on the original film’s formula.  Riddick survives another round with monsters and mercenaries, but finally encounters someone who doesn’t cross him off the list. And that someone is a member of the establishment class that regularly derides him.  So while Riddick re-connects with his animal instincts in this film in his struggle to survive, he also re-connects with the human race, and gets to see that not everyone is bad, or out to destroy him.  That's something of a new wrinkle.

I’ve gone to great lengths over the last few weeks to note how John Carpenter-esque Riddick is as a silver-screen anti-hero, and so I must point out that Riddick, in reflecting the scenario of Pitch Black (but with updates), similarly conforms to Carpenter’s career-long Howard Hawks’ obsession. 

To wit, Hawks essentially remade Rio Bravo (1959) twice with John Wayne, as both El Dorado (1966) and as Rio Lobo (1970).  Carpenter himself re-visited the central siege scenario of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) in Prince of Darkness (1987) and Ghosts of Mars (2001).  He essentially re-made Escape from New York (1981) as Escape from L.A. (1996), but he turned the Plissken saga into more overt a satire the second time around.

Here, Riddick similarly re-assembles elements of Pitch Black, but re-purposes them to new ends.  As John Wayne reportedly noted of the Rio Bravo/El Dorado/Rio Lobo trifecta: if ain’t broken, don’t fix it. 

Bristling with action, horror, imagination and even some surprise pathos, Riddick reveals that, similarly, the Riddick-verse ain’t broken.

“Yet again, someone was trying to play me. So yet again, we play for blood.”
Escaped convict, murderer, and former king of the Necromongers, Richard B. Riddick (Diesel) awakens on a desolate, virtually uninhabitable planet to discover that he is but prey to vultures of the air, serpents of the mud, and jackal-like dingoes.
Riddick barely survives day-to-day in this dangerous wasteland, and wonders how he was so easily played by Vaako (Karl Urban), his former lieutenant.  Where did he miss a step?  When did he become so civilized that he couldn’t detect a betrayal in the offing?
While Riddick struggles to survive, he also recalls how he left the Necromongers’ fleet in search of his long-lost home, Furya, but was double-crossed and left for dead on this world…which he has dubbed “Not Furya.”  
Hoping to find the survivor within once more, Riddick befriends one of the planet’s dingoes, and with the dog’s help, builds up a resistance to the poisonous sting of the serpents which block his path to safer ground.
Once on that safer ground, Riddick explores an abandoned merc station. When a huge storm system approaches -- stirring up the deadly serpents by the thousands -- he realizes he needs an air-lift off the planet.  Accordingly, Riddick activates an emergency beacon, aware that bounty hunters the galaxy over won’t be able to resist the price on his head.
And soon the ships come.  
The first is captained by the savage Santana (Jordi Malla), a man who taunts Riddick about cutting off his head and putting it in a box.  
The second ship is captained by Boss Johns (Matt Nable), a man who has a personal grudge against Riddick. He is accompanied by a deadly but beautiful sniper, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff).
As the storms come, and the venomous serpents overrun the mercenary compound, Riddick must decide which bounty hunters he can trust, and which he can’t…

“Leave God out of this. He wants no part in what happens next.”

In Pitch Black, Riddick attempted to survive on a hostile planet alongside an untrustworthy mercenary, a devout man of God (the Imam), and a woman who -- because of her own sense of guilt -- was willing to die for him.  

All these ingredients get re-shuffled in Riddick, and delightfully so.  

In this case, the ostensibly untrustworthy mercenary proves trustworthy, the man of God (a Christian boy this time…) eschews the Jobe-like acceptance of his spiritual predecessor, and the woman in the group -- Dahl -- proves Riddick notably wrong regarding one of his more colorful predictions about their mutual future. 

In essence, then, Riddick presents a familiar story of survival, but one laden with twists that go expressly against franchise expectations.   Riddick is a guy with an "I've seen it all attitude," and one of the best aspects of this sequel is the fact that though he repeats some of his stock-lines from the previous adventures (such as "It's not me you have to worry about..."), he also continuously gets dealt surprises in terms of his interactions with other human beings.  

This is a big deal for Riddick, a cynic and a critic of human nature. 

Most delightfully of all, the first half-hour of Riddick is downright riveting…and unexpectedly intimate.  This span of the film involves Riddick alone on screen for a long duration, attempting to survive the most hostile planetary environment imaginable. 

We watch him strangle the aforementioned vulture (one of the creatures that has premature counted him out…), painfully set a broken leg, find water to drink, and begin taking mental notes about the ubiquitous predators in the sea, on the land, and in the air. 

These relatively quiet moments help us re-connect with Riddick in a way that the epic-scaled The Chronicles of Riddick never exactly managed.  From frame one -- with a whole planet rising up to kill him -- we are invested in Riddick's survival 

Riddick also befriends an alien dog, and the ensuing relationship is one of the movie’s key inspirations. 

Again, that's not what I expected out of a second sequel with so much history.  Riddick may not have an easy time with making human friends, but he and this dog really bond, a fact which makes some of the action later in the movie tough sledding for animal lovers.  

But in a weird (and oddly touching...) way, Riddick’s is at his most vulnerable ever in this film, showing grudging affection for that loyal dog.  Watching these long scenes with Riddick and his canine companion, I was pleasantly reminded of moments from Robinson Crusoe and other stories in which man and animal -- fighting the same enemies and bracing the same landscape -- turn to one another for friendship.

What I especially like about the first half of the film is that it feels no obligation to push, no desire to rush things along, and no need to explain everything.  We re-connect with Riddick, see how he got to this dangerous juncture, and watch him struggle to survive.  The courtly intrigue and prophecies about the balance of the galaxy have been replaced by more human-scaled concerns, and this is a good thing, as far as I'm concerned.  It's great that Karl Urban is here as Vaako to remind us that the franchise has a history to contend with, but the story can move forward ably even without big budget spectacle.

As usual, Twohy's script crackles with good (and funny...) dialogue. Riddick offers his trademark laconic commentary throughout the film regarding his current plight “There are bad days, and there are legendarily bad days,” he deadpans.  Fortunately for viewers, Riddick features the latter: a day filled with bloody violence, slobbering monsters, and other gory surprises.

In terms of great dialogue Riddick also offers, late in the film, an excessively detailed, point-by-point prediction about what, precisely, will happen, when he is freed from his chains.  This prediction begins with bloody violence, proceeds through horrible death, and ends with, well…hot sex.  It’s a crazy, confident, gonzo monologue, delivered with delicious B-movie verve, and a perfect Riddick moment. Vin Diesel is the same Riddick as ever, but he seems somehow unencumbered in this film, like he’s going for broke and giving it his all.  I'm glad the film is R-rated, and there's been no attempt to soft-pedal the character, or blunt his sharp edges.

I should add, as well, that Vin Diesel is ably supported here, especially by Katee Sackhoff. Sackhoff skillfully underplays every moment and each verbal put-down her character delivers. As a consequence, her performance is something of a revelation.  I also like her a bit older -- Sackhoff started on BSG when she was 24 or thereabouts -- I must confess.  Sackhoff rseems eminently more convincing in Riddick because of the experience (and glimmer) she carries in her eyes.

Possessed of a solid visual imagination -- which gives rise to sights like flying Harleys called "jet hogs" -- and a deeply embedded sense of humor, especially in one scene involving an explosive device on a locked door, Riddick pretty much delivers everything it promises.  The film is low-budget for a space epic, to be certain, but high-impact in terms of the pure, nasty fun it delivers.

Free of pretension and girded by invention, Riddick gets the job done.  I hope Universal, David Twohy, and Vin Diesel get the chance to make another entry in the durable franchise before too long.

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