A man, a dog, two ships full of mercs and a planet of beasties (spoiler notice)
Right off the bat, let me confess that I like this film series. I have a soft spot for Richard B. Riddick. Not everyone has, clearly evinced by the slew of negative reports surrounding this latest entry. Riddick is a movie that sets out to do a very specific thing. It takes its damn sweet time to do it, and along the way a few iffy story lines involving women swish uncomfortably past, but it succeeds at exactly that goal. Whether you'll be as disappointed as many others depends on your stomach for Vin Diesel reprising his role as intergalactic badass.
Initially, I was a little miffed hearing about the direction this would take. To explain, let's do a quick review of the series. In 2000, Pitch Black saw the introduction of the character. It was a low budget, small scale creature feature involving a group of crash-landed outcasts, a bounty hunter and a dangerous convict. Survival was the name of the game and Riddick its reigning king. The brilliance was that he wasn't even such a prominent character at first. It's like Pitch Black realized only halfway through how magnetic a person he was.
The 2004 sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, was a cannon shot into the epic science fiction genre. Director David Twohy was gunning for Star Wars here – and I'm keen on calling his effort a success. Here Riddick turned from man-on-the-run into a full-fledged Hero of Destiny; taking on an army of universe-scouring Necromongers. Riddick's Furyan past was unearthed and it had the perfect, Conan-esque ending: an ascension to the aggressor's throne as their new Lord Marshal.
That setup left me pining for a third film, with the hope that it would once again have the audacity to evolve the series further. Why not a interstellar war record where Riddick served as general, commanding his armies into battle while staving off courtly intrigue? Alas. Perhaps because Twohy and actor Vin Diesel felt they had drifted away from the character's true nature, Riddick returned to its roots. This third movie is Pitch Black in tone, setting and story. A truer sequel, but all the less surprising for it.
At the start, the developments of Chronicles are quickly dealt with. Riddick is betrayed and left for dead on a remote desert world. There he must unearth 'the beast within him' once more to survive the hazardous landscape. The first ten minutes alone are spent dealing with various wildlife threats. Just when it seems to become laughable, a key event happens: Riddick gets a dog. Or, a comparable native version. There's an immediate bond between the two, which forms the biggest draw to the first half of the film. It brings up memories of I Am Legend: a man alone in the world with an animal as sole companion. It offers a window into Riddick's emotions that we rarely see, and adds flavor to a fun survival story.
Before long, this being of course what it is, mercenaries show up to collect the not inconsiderable bounty upon our hero's to-be-severed head. Two different parties of mercs, in fact, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem. This is Riddick's turf; let the games begin.
There's an acute sense of characterization going on here. Diesel and Twohy know how to make this film. Though Riddick delves into caricature at times (laughing while in chains, ruminating on his predicament like a Noir detective), he's completely convincing, as are the bands of mercs with all their varying personalities and quirks. It's enjoyable to watch something written with such effortless skill. It's not high-brow in the slightest, it doesn't attempt anything beyond what it is, but it would require a cruel and strangely blithe visor to look at this and not appreciate that it does exactly what it sets out to do.
A real criticism can and must be made regarding the women in this. First, there is a token female prisoner, shot in the desert for no other reason but to establish that one of the merc leaders is an unfriendly chap. Then there's Dahl. Now, Katee Sackhoff has more than proven her mettle in the excellent, recent Battlestar Galactica show. She does tough, physical ladies well. Here she plays a stony-faced warrior woman that could force Xena to her knees. What she shares with her Greek counterpart is homosexuality. After a select few supremely awkward, public flirts by Riddick (after peeking at Dahl in the shower, he later comments upon the color of her nipples), our hero manages that superhero feat and adolescent fantasy of bigots: turning a woman straight by sexual innuendo alone. Yikes. Diesel normally appears more than usually sensitive to this sort of stuff, so how this one slipped by I have no idea. Dahl actually adds a lot to this film, so it's an extra pity nothing more interesting could be found for her to do.
The story ends predictably, as follows the entirety of the experience. There is a hollow feeling at the lack of resolution regarding the larger arc of the character. When will Riddick find Furya? Will he take revenge on his betrayers? Perhaps those notions have had their heads severed and put in a box, much like the entirety of the last film. This is less memorable and ambitious than Chronicles was. It is, it then appears, exactly what Riddick is, and will always remain. The Necromonger in me is saddened by this, thinking of what could have been. But the Furyan in me... well, I guess he's pretty happy Riddick is still stretching his legs on the big screen, combating mercs and monsters with makeshift shivs.