News Column

'Riddick' made on the cheap has some value

September 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 05--"The whole damn planet wants a piece of me."

Those are nine of the maybe 72 words Vin Diesel speaks in "Riddick." Really, it's about twice as many as he needs. The third movie in the series has the shortest title, the simplest plot and the skimpiest costuming. With just a handful of characters and bargain visual effects, the sequel looks as if it was made for what one spaceship would have cost in "The Chronicles of Riddick."

None of this is bad news for fans of the series, which returns after a nine year break. Economic realities force director David Twohy and Diesel back to the lean predatory feel of the original "Pitch Black," over the space opera bloat of "Chronicles." The result isn't a great film, but it's true to the original vision.

Let us go no further before pointing out how brutal and often gratuitously violent that original vision was. And the R-rated "Riddick," if anything, goes even further. This is a film where an alien beast might get disemboweled, stoop down, and in its dying breath dine on its own entrails. Twohy, God bless him, doesn't believe in the shaky-hand quick edit camera style popular in movies with less gung-ho action stars. It costs money to slice a dude's head in two pieces. Hold the camera still, so people can get a good look at the brains.

You get the feeling Twohy and Diesel both spent their teen years viewing "First Blood," wearing out their VCR fast forward keys to watch Rambo sew up his own lacerated arm without painkillers, before maiming a bunch of sheriffs with homemade animal traps. That's basically the entirety of "Riddick." Our hero sets his fractured leg, fights some aliens, licks his wounds again, toys with some bounty hunters, then uses a white-hot space rock to cauterize a stab wound.

As much as it exists at all, the plot is an inexcusable mess -- hastily extricating itself from the last movie, then teasing a payoff that never materialize. Karl Urban reprises his role from the last "Chronicles" for about 12 seconds, and stands around doing nothing for all but two of them.

And yet, you get the feeling this is exactly the kind of movie that Twohy (who directed all three Riddick movies) and Diesel (who produced the last two) were trying to make. They seem less concerned that it makes sense, and more concerned about getting the tone right.

And for all of its un-ironic manly dialogue and relentless gore, the "Riddick" tone is close to perfect. After an extended survival sequence, Riddick is pursued by two teams of bounty hunters, who have landed on a barely inhabitable space rock. They're heavily armed but stuck at an outpost, while Riddick roams the wasteland carrying almost comically prehistoric-looking homemade weapons. (Imagine if Fred Flintstone became a Michael Myers-style horror movie villain.) Many stabbings ensue.

The early scenes in this cat-and-mouse game are particularly well-paced. Katee Sackhoff stands out as Dahl, basically reprising her Starbuck character from the "Battlestar Galactica" TV show, with a little more nudity. All the actors are trying -- even the ones whose costumes look like they came from the bargain shelf of the Spirit Halloween superstore. Everyone looks appropriately haggard, as if there were a lot of late night beers and poker games on this movie set.

The visual effects are distractingly cheap, and way too plentiful. There's a disconnect when Diesel acts in proximity to an alien creature, as if the filmmakers kept telling him the heads of the killer space zebra was in the wrong place.

And yet there's no frontline actor in movies who puts in a more concentrated effort in the B-movie realm. Even Nicolas Cage has to bow down to Diesel, whose performances in the Riddick video games involved more effort than every actor in "After Earth" combined.

This is the kind of movie where our hero has access to all kinds of advanced ranged firepower, but still chooses to stalk his prey with a blade strapped to what looks like a brontosaurus femur. Why? Don't ask those kinds of questions, it's a Riddick movie ...

Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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