Review: 'Riddick'

Buried in the center of the spiraling geek spectrum is Vin Diesel, a Hollywood action figure with the brawn of a jock and the brain of your local comic book shop's Dungeon Master-in-residence. His “for them's” look a like his “for me's,” with the added, unexpected gloss of a Magic: The Gathering playing card. “Riddick” marks Diesel's third quest as his space cadet antihero, and with the help of series writer/director David Twohy, the star rolls a natural 20 for full nerd advantage. Diesel cashes in all of the “Fast & Furious” chips here, steering his passion franchise away from the mainstream with a hybrid of D&D adventuring, “Pitch Black”-style close quarters mayhem, and a dash of “Heavy Metal” for spice. Dan O'Bannon's grungy, low-budget nightmares run amok in “Riddick,” which never settles on a single story to tell while still stuffing a great deal of fun down our throats.

“Riddick” is a fractured skeleton of a script, with each distinct installment scratching its own itch. Part one plays like “Gerry,” with Richard B. Riddick (yes, that's his full name) taking the place of two aimless hikers and the “Dune” planet Arrakis swapping in for Death Valley. After the muddled events of 2004's “Chronicles of Riddick” (which you remember as well as “Empire Strikes Back,” right?), Riddick finds himself stranded on a sandy wasteland, fending off creepy crawlers and rejected designs from “Avatar.” Shockingly, the mostly-silent prelude is “Riddick's” best material. Diesel carries the weight of the methodical, CG-assisted world-building like Atlas; he's more human in a single frame of “Riddick” than in all of “Furious 6.” Voiceover pulled straight from the overly-poetic spoken word intros of discount rack rap albums dampens the physical force Diesel manages to display against manufactured backdrops, but his charm clobbers through. “Riddick” is a star vehicle for a star Hollywood forgot it had.

Riddick's cross-plains trek leads him to an abandoned supply facility — the perfect opportunity to alert a universe of bounty hunters of his current location. In hopes of seizing a spaceship, Riddick divulges his whereabouts spurring the supporting cast to come a'flockin. Two factions arrive: First, slimy scumbug Santana (Jordi Mollà) and his Sergio Leone-esque gangster squad; Second, a military unit comprised of by-the-books Boss Johns (Matt Nable) and his second-in-command, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff). As the two clash outside the futuristic cantina, Riddick hides in the shadows, picking them off one by one.

Twohy swiftly pans the spotlight away from his hero for the main thrust of “Riddick,” scaling down the concept art landscapes into a practical cagematch of B-cinema mayhem. If only the ensemble held a candle to Diesel, who lurks away from the action while the soldiers implode. These are shades of characters, grating when Twohy takes the easiest paths imaginable to shade them. Bautistia is the liveliest of the bunch, adding wit to an otherwise meager cast (promising for those looking forward to Marvel's “Guardians of the Galaxy”). Sackhoff inevitably injects Dahl with brute strength, but rarely does she escape the gravitational pull of the eye candy role. And along with being incompetent, Santana finds time during his hunt for Riddick to sexually molest Dahl, who plainly states early on that she favors women over men (“I don't f**k guys, but I do occasionally f**k them up”). The misogynistic stupidity could be overlooked if it weren't for Riddick's inclusion later; when he's eventually taken in by the gang, he makes the sly remark that he'll be “balls deep” in Dahl soon enough. What is likely a nod to sci-fi's grand tradition of gratuitous sex chatter falls completely flat in “Riddick.” Uncomfortably so.

When Diesel does reenter the picture at the hour-thirty mark — evoking more “Heavy Metal” comparisons, “Riddick” feels like a segmented anthology film — the actor cranks his gusto for running, jumping, slashing, and smirking to 11. Twohy gives him all the room to play, throwing a mix of animated and puppet monsters at his feet as tribute to Hollywood's God of War. Perhaps TV sci-fi special effects have trained this eye, but “Riddick's” CG alien designs, blended with dusk skies and the right amount of rain (take note, “Pacific Rim”) dazzle. When major blockbusters are spending $300 million to throw everything at the screen, Twohy and Diesel fill their frames with an economical amount of weird.

Diesel's hope for a sprawling mythology stand in the way of “Riddick” being a sizzling sci-fi escapade. Turns out, when it comes to the blind, gruff renegade, the smaller the adventure, the better. A summer of high-adrenaline action pics may have us wishing for more from “Riddick,” but any aversion to the slow and steady pacing of the film is likely the resulting aftermath of a non-stop roller coaster ride. Diesel would tell you that wall-to-wall action isn't the style for any D&D game and it's not the approach that maximizes the “Riddick” formula to its fullest potential. He's right.

SCORE: 6.4 / 10