Weird Sexual Politics, Eyeless Scorpion Things, And ‘Riddick’ [Review]

Sure, “Riddick” is silly, a little overblown, and pretty weird when it comes to its own sexual politics, but it’s also a well-crafted B-movie with lots of expertly-crafted action by writer-director David Twohy.

Taking place some years after “Chronicles of Riddick,” the latest film in the franchise spawned by 2000’s “Pitch Black” sees star Vin Diesel’s title character trapped on yet another alien planet and ultimately battling it out with the indigenous life forms. All this, while its anti-hero contends with not one but two bands of mercenaries out for his head (one group literally there to separate his head from his neck).

The most admirable trait about “Riddick” is its economy: even at two hours, the movie never feels like bloated, quickly establishing one clear threat after for Richard B. Riddick to murder as he attempts to make his way offworld by luring nearby mercenaries to the planet to attempt to capture him. They come in two groups: one a band of unkempt rapists lead by Santana (Jordi MollĂ ), the other a more militaristic group whose leader has a personal grudge against Riddick. One group wants him dead, the other wants him alive, and Riddick just wants to get away–and all of them hope to survive the eyeless scorpion things with pointy tails that only come out when it rains.

Wisely, “Riddick” doesn’t ask you to remember too much about “Chronicles of Riddick,” but it does use a bit of the history between films as well as 2000’s “Pitch Black” to build the story and offer a little more about its lead character, as Riddick attempts to regain some of his savagery after becoming too “civilized.”

It’s a good 15 minutes or so before “Chronicles of Riddick” is brought up in “Riddick,” with Diesel’s gravelly narration explaining how he went from leader of the Necromongers to stranded on an arid, hostile planet with a broken leg. In fact, the opening is maybe the strongest part of “Riddick,” with Diesel wandering the nameless planet, mostly alone, bleeding, starving, and–for the first time–vulnerable. Sure there’s a lot of macho posturing as Riddick attempts to establish himself as the alpha predator on this world (that’s largely a consistent theme with the character), but allowing itself to be quiet and kind of weird for a nice, long stretch allows viewers to get to know the unknowable Riddick.

And who he is is largely unsympathetic and mostly unlikeable, but those traits are almost beside the point. In the neanderthal rules of the “Riddick”-verse, this is what it means to be a man: to have some kind of code, to protect the weak and to dominate the strong.

This intense focus on alpha maleness means “Riddick” doesn’t have too much time for women, but between this and “Chronicles,” Twohy seems to have an odd blind spot for female characters. In the coming days you might read about the misogyny of “Riddick,” specifically directed at the sole named female character in the movie, Katee Sackhoff’s Dahl. An out lesbian, she’s repeatedly menaced by Santana and, later, trades sexual barbs with Riddick. And while their final scene together makes zero sense in the context of these characters’ relationship (the relationship with Dahl is the least important one here), she’s mostly a product of the same tough guy swagger as the rest of the characters of trained killers, looking ripped, bunches faces, and growling her dialog.

Looking back on this review, I’ve loaded it with what seems like a lot of backhanded compliments. But in a summer of bloated, largely complicated blockbusters with very little interesting to say, “Riddick” knows what it is and what it wants to achieve. Violent, strange, and with ever-escalating stakes, this is the definition of a well-crafted B-movie. More importantly, “Riddick” is a worthy followup to “Pitch Black” and a nice reminder that you should probably rewatch “Pitch Black.” While I’m not sure that we need more stories about Richard B. Riddick out there, this is a solid return to form for the character.

“Riddick” is in theaters now.