Silver Screen: Riddick ***
Fast and Furious star/sentient grumble Vin Diesel returns to his other big, dumb franchise in Riddick, the second sequel to Pitch Black following the grandiose, misbegotten Chronicles of Riddick. This time around, there are no chronicles, no three-syllable words-- sometimes barely any words at all, in fact, which turns out to be the movie's strong suit. Riddick is a tightly focused sci-fi survival tale so hyperbolic in its meathead masculinity that it verges on self-parody, but it's self-aware enough to be a bit of nasty fun.
When last we left intergalactic fugitive Riddick-- well, who the hell knows? Like the vast majority of the American populace, I didn't see The Chronicles of Riddick. Based on the brief flashback sequence early in the third movie, he was sitting on a throne drinking a growler of space beer and watching a naked lady roll around on a bed when Bones from Star Trek (Karl Urban) shows up for fifteen seconds, just long enough to trick our antihero into journeying back to his home planet.
Of course, there's treachery afoot. Instead of landing on his own planet, Riddick arrives on a sun-blasted hellscape filled with deadly creatures. He foils the assassination attempt but is stranded. Director David Twohy crafts a surprisingly cinematic, almost dialogue-free first act that depicts Riddick's grim struggle to keep himself alive in a hostile environment. His plan to escape the planet is elegantly simple: He finds a distress beacon at an abandoned outpost and alerts the authorities that a wanted criminal is alive on the planet. When a rival group of bounty hunters arrives to take his severed head in for a reward, he'll kill them all and steal their ship.
Once the bounty hunters arrive, led by a rival pair of mercenaries (Matt Nable and Jordi Molla), Riddick goes into hiding. Though he's off screen for long stretches, his presence is felt via a series of clues and corpses as he starts picking off his would-be captors. Twohy makes no bones about how we're rooting for the bad guy, but in the movie's neo-Darwinian logic Riddick earns his role as the protagonist by being the fittest and most capable of survival.
The movie's base logic and gleefully amoral outlook don't run too deep, but nothing about Riddick is intended for depth. This is hard-edged, hard sci-fi indulgence, a pure genre exercise that lives up to its own modest ambitions. It's also a hell of a lot more fun than the seemingly endless string of bland PG-13 superheroics and Harry Potter knockoffs.
At times Riddick's ruthless simplicity gives way to plain old stupidity. The lone female character (Battlestar Galactica's awesome Katee Sackhoff) gets the worst of it. She poses in a lot of muscle shirts and constantly reiterates her lesbianism, a sexual preference Riddick insists he can change. By the end of the movie, after she's been ogled in the shower and proven mostly ineffective on the battlefield, she agrees. It's a particularly unseemly moment in a movie already skirting the limits of vileness, and it's also a waste of Sackhoff, who's a credible badass and could have filled a more interesting, involved role.
Riddick is also heavily reliant on computer effects. The backgrounds are greenscreened far more often than not, and all the space monsters move with a digitized fluidity that renders them as videogame threats and drains them of real menace.
Diesel is all glowers and gravelly voiced grunts, but he makes a fine apex predator. Even when the computer effects falter or the story drags, his menace is palpable. It's a shame that the movie, at a bloated running time of two hours, can't be as ruthlessly efficient and direct as the title character. But Twohy has crafted a worthy followup to the underrated Pitch Black, one that feels more distinctive than perhaps it should thanks to the legions of safe, indistinguishable superhero fare.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.