Review: 'Riddick' offers fun, cheap thrills and Vin Diesel

But fast and furious action could have used better CGI. Photo: Universal Pictures PR

WASHINGTON, September 18, 2013 – It’s been Vin Diesel’s lucky summer. After scoring a hit in the sixth installment of the “Fast and Furious” franchise this June, his second summer hit, “Riddick,” was number one at the box office during the first full week of September. But, although “Riddick” bumped “The Butler” from the top box office slot, its two-week domestic take is now a less-impressive $31 million domestic take.

On the other hand, “Riddick” was cheap to produce as sci-fi flicks go. It only cost about $38 million to assemble, so the film is likely to make plenty of money internationally and via DVD. The reason? The “Riddick” series, of which this film is the third, have become something of a cult hit since the first of movie, “Pitch Black,” hit the silver screen back in 2000, followed by 2004’s “The Chronicles of Riddick.”

Universal promo banner for “Riddick.”

Like its predecessors, the current “Riddick” charts the life and unfortunate times of this classic Vin Diesel character, a hardened criminal anti-hero who’s really a victim of circumstance, more or less. Adding a little sci-fi piquancy, he’s also a rare alien, a “Furyan” (get it?), perhaps the last of his kind and possibly the only survivor from his ancient planet.

An added plus: Furyans, with their glowing, bluish pupils, have perfect night vision. Another advantage, at least when it comes to Riddick: they have virtually superhuman strength and endurance although they’re by no means superheroes.

When we left Riddick in “Chronicles,” he’d fought his way through a tough band of evil Necromongers to be crowned their king. We knew this would never last, of course, and we find out what happened via flashback in “Riddick.” His restless subjects whisked him off to a remote desert planet under false pretenses. It’s a death trap and they leave him to die after apparently blowing him to smithereens.

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Riddick is down but never out. After setting his own broken leg by drilling in a pair of improvised steel pins—kids, don’t try this at home—he sets off to encounter a stunning variety of deadly wolf-dogs and assorted venomous monsters most of whom facially resemble Sigourney Weaver’s “Alien” but whose weirdly forked tails seem borrowed a page from the giant, poisonous scorpion playbook.

Vin Diesel’s Riddick and his pet dog-wolf, Sherman. (Not his real name.) (Universal Pictures promo.)

After our flashback update, we arrive at the closest thing this movie has to a plot, which is Riddick’s attempt to lure bounty hunters to his godforsaken planet so he can borrow one of their ships to escape. He ends up attracting two ships’ worth of hunters (capturing Riddick always promises a big net reward) but encounters problems as well, as one of the hunters nurses a personal grudge against our anti-hero.

Like “Fast and Furious,” “Riddick’s” setup is merely the excuse for a even more fast and furious sci-fi action, which is what this character’s small but persistent cadre of fans is really looking for. The fight sequences are often surprisingly compelling, with nearly everyone except, nearly everyone except Diesel’s Riddick getting spectacularly terminated one way or the other.

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An extra-added attraction in this film is the appearance of statuesque Nordic mercenary Dahl on Boss John’s (Matt Nable’s) late-arriving bounty hunter transport. Portrayed by popular TV star Katee Sackhoff (“Battlestar Galactica,” “Longmire”), Dahl kicks lethal tail with the best of her burly male compadres, That’s not surprising since she proudly proclaims her lesbian unavailability to any randy male hopeful who gets too up close and personal.

Riddick and Boss John (Matt Nable) vs. even more nasty monsoon monsters. (Universal studios promo)

With lots of action and minimal plot, the entire film, expertly directed by David Twohy, hinges on Vin Diesel’s kick-ass portrayal of Riddick, which is what Riddick fans come to see anyway. Diesel’s enduring if somewhat limited popularity in this role is a bit of a mystery, given that Riddick has no secret origins or tradition in either the Marvel or DC universes.

However, it is what it is. Even this reviewer admits to being a casual Riddick fan. There’s just something about the character that makes you want to see him win against all odds. It’s inexplicable. Or, perhaps, it’s vicarious wish-fulfillment in a world we no longer seem to control on any level.

The main problem with the current “Riddick” installment is its painfully and obviously low-budget. We’re talking bargain-basement CGI effects and background paintings in a film that’s clearly filmed about 90 percent of the time against a green-screen backdrop.

Katee Sackhoff’s no-nonsense Dahl adds a touch of martial-arts dominatrix piquancy to this mostly-male action flick. (Universal promo)

The blockbusters from early summer 2013, like the latest “Superman” boasted perhaps the best CGI graphics and animations we’ve ever seen. On the other hand, the moviemakers involved in these films were so obviously impressed with their CGI magic that, at times, they forgot to pay attention to plot or character development.

“Riddick,” on the other hand, is a little like going to a professional wrestling match where even the uninitiated soon learn they’re about to see absolute good pitted against absolute evil. So, too, with “Riddick.” Minimal plot. Just fighting, chasing, explosions and monsters. But given that emphasis, we want all the above to look really good, right?

Alas, the cheapness of “Riddick’s” special effects become readily apparent in the early scenes. The majestically foreboding mountain ranges we see are as clearly background paintings as were the painted backdrops of yesteryear’s TV Westerns like “Bonanza,” where most scenes were filmed on a soundstage.

The monsters, usually partially hidden by darkness, are, fortunately, much better realized, so the net effect is 50-50 by a dog-wolf hair.

“Riddick’s” filmmakers most likely figured that, after a quick initial run, their flick would go right to DVD, generating plenty of sales among Riddick fans in the lucrative aftermarket. And we’d have to say that viewing a “Riddick” DVD on your 40, 50, or 60-inch Samsung would make this film’s low-budget CGI effect appear considerably more impressive.

After all this carping, we liked this movie anyway. Go figure.

But we didn’t love it. We just liked it. But given all the useless garbage and political propaganda Hollywood cranks out these days, good enough is often good enough. Our ticket cost just $6 bucks at our local Northern Virginia multiplex, so who the heck is complaining? Wait’ll you see your Obamacare insurance premium.


Rating: * ½ (One and one half stars out of four)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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