NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
The Chronicles of Riddick was an odd attempt to spin an epic space opera franchise out of Pitch Black, which was a tight little survival-based scence fiction spin on Flight of the Phoenix. However, star Vin Diesel – having seen his Fast & Furious franchise go from strength to strength in sillier and sillier instalments – and writer/director David Twohy – who has always had an unusual commitment to sf cinema – were reluctant to let the underperformance of the expensive Chronicles quash the series and the character … so here’s a tardy revival which, against the odds, is a pretty entertaining little action/suspense movie that literally travels from the overblown universe of the last film (all Dune-type intrigues and robed cultists) back to the sparer, mercs-and-monsters universe of Pitch Black. It opens with Riddick, who has reacquired a full name (‘Richard B. Riddick’), injured and alone in a desolate landscape on a planet populated by barb-tailed scorpion-snake-lizard things and showing his toughness by setting his own leg, burying himself alive and gritting his teeth. Some clumsy narrated flashbackery featuring a Karl Urban cameo, a bedful of topless harem girls and a scarred treachery-monger explains how Riddick got from the end of the last film to the beginning of this one. Then he makes friends with a zebra-hyena beast he raises from a pup and, realising that this planet’s rare rainstorms bring out the monsters the way that the night brought out the monsters in Pitch Black, lets a remote probe scan his face at a supplies hut, alerting all the bounty hunters in the universe that he’s here as a way of calling a taxi.
Two factions of hunters show up – some tough-talking, piratical goons led by flamboyant sado Santana (Jordi Molla) and more militarised professionals led by Johns (Matt Noble) – and the film focuses on them for a while, making Riddick the mostly-unseen menace who picks them off and causes intergroup trouble. Santana wants Riddick’s head in a box so he can cash in a reward that doubles if Riddick is dead, but Johns wants an explanation of a plot point from Pitch Black. There’s a slight feeling of star vehicle about the casting – the grunts here are notably less familiar character actors than the crew of Pitch Black, and while Molla and Noble are servicable actors they don’t have the charisma to go eye-to-silvery-eye with Diesel. The supporting bounty hunters include Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar Galactica as a tough lesbian chick who keeps thumping Santana but has a humiliating character name (Dahl, pronounced ‘Doll’), a gratuitous nude scene (Riddick complements her on having toenails that match her nipples) and an implied sexual turnabout as she ‘asks sweetly’ for Riddick to ‘go balls-deep’ (though it’s not confirmed whether he does). Bokeem Woodbine fulfils the black guy who gets killed quotient and wrestler Dave Bautista is there to get into (and lose) a muscle-straining fight with Riddick.
The third act is sort of a remake of Pitch Black as it starts raining, the monsters swarm and Riddick gets into an uneasy alliance with the folk hunting him in order to survive and get off the planet. Pitch Black was a monster movie spin on Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’, but this feels more like a take on Harry Harrison’s Deathworld books – and why has no one ever filmed them? – in which Earthmen visit planets whose every lifeform, climactic shift and geological quirk are inimical to human life. The writing is okay, if lacking in real zingers, but Diesel is plainly enjoying himself, bringing back some of the ambiguous psychopathic streak lost in the first sequel and dishing out apt punishment to nasty folk (Santana’s exit is especially spectacular). On the strength of this, Riddick could survive as a franchise provided it keeps to the low-level, gritty action-survival tough guy business and stays away from intergalactic politics and gothic outfits.