Outside of the Fast and Furious franchise, the intergalactic anti-hero Richard B. Riddick remains Vin Diesel’s most successful character - a mysterious loner who is as inscrutable as he is lethal. After the back to basics sci-fi horror Pitch Black kickstarted Diesel’s action man career and garnered Riddick a loyal following, the franchise appeared to beach itself with the magnificently bloated follow up The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004; an overly ambitious sequel let down by a clunky script laden with so much mumbo-jumbo it was difficult to know what was going on half the time. Now, clearly undeterred by that film’s financial failure, Diesel and series director David Twohy have reunited to work on this leaner (and cheaper) third entry, which is much more of a Pitch Black 2 than Chronicles ever was.
Those hoping to find out more about the Necromongers from the last film are going to be disappointed by Riddick, which hastily resolves that film’s (rather good) cliffhanger ending before dumping the storyline altogether - something of a letdown. A much smaller scale story takes over, presumably necessitated by a limited budget (which betrays itself on a few occasions); but perhaps Riddick is a character better off in the shadows. He finds himself marooned on a nameless and extremely hostile planet, where he is forced to rediscover his animal side in brutal fashion. This is Jason Bourne in Space - a man forced to survive with nothing but his armour and a few bones to help him.
It’s a strong opening, often wordless and all the better for it. In Pitch Black, Riddick was a mysterious force of nature; in Chronicles he was something of a dark messianic figure. This time Twohy seems more interested in breaking down Riddick, both as a man and a character. He seems more vulnerable than before, which removes some of the mystique about him, but at the same time makes you root for him all the more. Sometimes it’s not clear which side he’s on, but that’s what keeps Riddick so intriguing; no matter how questionable his actions are, the people at the receiving end tend to be deserving of them.
That remains true here. Two mercenary ships track him down in an attempt to claim the bounty on his head (who exactly put the bounty there has yet to be revealed), but Riddick is typically one step ahead of them. A game of cat and mouse ensues, as Riddick tries to swipe one of their ships, before - wouldn’t you know it? - a rainstorm arrives, bringing with it any number of nasty water-dwelling creatures. Disappointingly, the film then becomes a rehash of Pitch Black, with rain substituting for the dark. It’s entertaining enough, but we’ve seen it before. The plot threads connecting this entry to Pitch Black only serve to flatter the original film even more. Vin Diesel’s growling voice and brooding physicality remain perfectly suited to the role, even more so than Dominic Toretto in The Fast and the Furious. The two crews make for amusing cannon fodder, particularly Jordi Mollà and Matt Nable as rival merc captains, Katee Sackhoff as the token tough girl and Dave Bautista as a poor man’s Dwayne Johnson.
Riddick may creatively tread water, but it succeeds in getting the franchise back on its feet and, given the lack of decent sci-fi thrillers in cinema these days, it at least doesn’t insult one’s intelligence. At heart these films are westerns, with Riddick as the Man With No Name, dispensing justice for all the wrong reasons (“Leave God out of this”, he barks at a timid Bible-bashing boy). This new entry does nothing to change that, for which we should be grateful.