As a child, I used to play with my Star Wars action figures every chance I got. My parents sensed my enthusiasm for The Force, so Christmas morning at my house was like an annual unveiling of the latest action figure George Lucas commissioned. I’d go over to my pal John’s house and we’d stage the most epic-sized, off-the-wall Star Wars melodramas we could imagine.
This is likely the reason the Star Wars prequels came up short for me and so many other children of the 1980s: there was nothing in those movies that could match the stories that already existed in my imagination, resulting from hours and hours of playtime with plastic figures (don’t you dare call them dolls).
Some sci-fi film fantasies carry expectations too big to be fulfilled in two hours of screen time. On the other hand, there’s Riddick, the third in a trilogy of space operas that are more admired than genuinely respected by fans. From first scene to last, the film delivers on being a pulpy, old-school, outer space creature feature. If John and I had a fist full of Riddick action figures, then hours of our play time would likely resemble the plot of this movie.
When we meet up with the title character (an engaging, playful Vin Diesel), he’s buried in dirt and clearly having taken a beating since his last adventure. Richard P. Riddick is still the same loner survivalist we met in the terrific Pitch Black who can see in the dark and is more than capable of defending himself against any opponent. He’s also still smarting from his run-in with the Necromongers, the Borg-like race of villains we met in enjoyable but over-plotted The Chronicles of Riddick.
Some of the least interesting scenes in this movie are tying up loose ends from the previous installment, which only the most die-hard fans of the second installment (if there are any) will care about. Most won’t know or care why Karl Urban shows up for one scene wearing too much eye shadow or how Riddick came to find himself stranded on a desert planet flush with hungry, slithering monsters. What we care about is how our anti-hero will survive the next attack by an alien carnivore or out-think the next batch of humans who try to capture him. It is in this simple way that the movie delivers again and again.
The best scenes have no dialogue and are simply Riddick living until the end of the day, having overcome obstacles that Rambo would find a challenge. The first half of the movie is nearly silent, as we watch Riddick train and befriend a creature that resembles a hyena/zebra hybrid (the effects are so good, you never doubt the presence of this beast, who is both stunning and adorable). Riddick and his pet live off the land and walk right into trouble, the same way Mad Max and his dog once made their own pilgrimage across a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Once we meet two groups of hunters out for Riddick’s head (literally), the cornball one-liners stack up and so does a running time that could have used some trimming. Still, when the film works, it has the same grungy kick and entertainment value as one of John Carpenter’s lower budget but cleverly constructed thrillers. Writer/director David Twohy, reuniting with Diesel for the third time, has once again made a B-movie with journeyman authority, archetypal characters, knowingly iconic moments and, most importantly, a rich sense of humor.
That last quality is why this superior guilty pleasure towers over expensive, self important junk like Pacific Rim and Man of Steel. Riddick is the kind of big popcorn entertainment that, as soon as it ends, makes you want to rush out and buy the action figures.
★ ★ ★
Rated R / 119 Min.