Review: 'Riddick'

(Two-and-a-half stars)

The man with the night-vision eyes is back. After a detour into overblown yet PG-13 territory in "The Chronicles of Riddick," Vin Diesel's science-fiction anti-hero returns to something like his "Pitch Black" roots in the simply titled -- and R-rated -- "Riddick."

When the new film opens, Furyan warrior, ex-convict and part-time king Richard B. Riddick has been left for dead on a desolate planet populated only by deadly beasts. As he puts it in growly, gravely voice-over: "There are bad days, and there are legendary bad days. This is shaping up to be one of those." The wounded warrior plays survivalist for the film's first half-hour, in which Diesel's pretty much the only human on screen (aside from a couple of explanatory flashbacks, one a Karl Urban cameo). It's a canny decision by writer-director David Twohy, since Riddick goes to ground for most of the next half-hour as he's sought by human predators.

The last hour firms up a hate-triangle (the manly-movie answer to romantic comedies' love triangles) comprising Riddick, a group of purely mercenary bounty hunters (headed up by Jordi Molla and including WWE vet Dave Bautista) and a more professional team with a murkier motivation that connects this film to "Pitch Black" (led by Matt Nable and including Katee Sackhoff, Bokeem Woodbine and Nolan Gerard Funk). It's 11-against-one, and Riddick likes those odds. Did I mention there's a storm brewing?

As violent, macho fantasies go, this one is surprisingly engaging. The film is a throwback to '80s sci-fi actioners like "Predator" in its striking visual approach (not original, per se, but striking), its juicy pulp dialogue (Twohy's no slouch, with screenplay credits including "The Fugitive" and "G.I. Jane") and its unabashed hard-"R" gusto (including persistent profanity, gory violence and flashes of female nudity). Nowhere does this tone work better than with Molla's florid bad guy. Molla gives a flat-out great performance: Highly expressive and keenly comical, it's probably the most purely entertaining work I've witnessed all year. As the guy you'll love to hate, he alone is worth the price of admission.

"Riddick" amounts to approximately zero, and there's no question it would benefit from tighter pacing, but it's not half-bad. Its pronounced sense of humor goes a long way, and Twohy recaptures some of the tension of "Pitch Black" (along with many of its basic story beats) while making the most of a vivid "Aliens"-style action ensemble.

Unfortunately, it's part of the game to dedicate the film's running time to endlessly re-establishing Riddick's -- and therefore Diesel's -- masculine bona fides, ending on the borderline offensive suggestion that he can turn on, and maybe even turn, a lesbian. I guess that's what you get when you turn the movie clock back a quarter century.

Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexual content/nudity. One hour, 59 minutes.


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