By now, the saga of escaped convict and galactic outlaw Richard Riddick is a well-established sci-fi benchmark with a devoted following cultivated by a succession of movie, DVD and video-game releases.
As the substantial lore surrounding Riddick aspires to achieve mythic proportions, expectations also escalate, challenging successive releases to augment the gritty antihero’s legendary status, particularly after the first sequel, budget-bloated “The Chronicles of Riddick,” stumbled in 2004.
Succinctly titling the third film “Riddick” would seem to telegraph a determinative evolution of the ongoing narrative, rather than the largely episodic exercise franchise director David Twohy and star-producer Vin Diesel have delivered.
Even though there still are plenty of Riddick adherents out there, opening weekend response could be somewhat muted considering the nine-year lapse since the last movie and the noticeably more restrained style of the follow-up. But the franchise’s fanbase almost certainly will provide a significant bump with the release of home-entertainment formats.
Duped into relinquishing the crown of Lord Marshal of the Necromongers by his nemesis Vaako (Karl Urban), an entitlement hard-won in “The Chronicles of Riddick,” the notorious murderer Riddick (Diesel) ends up stranded on another blisteringly inhospitable planet instead of enjoying a return to his home world of Furya, as Vaako led him to expect. Fending off attacks by hyena-like wild canines and battling carnivorous amphibians reminiscent of giant scorpions, Riddick makes it out of the heat-blasted desert to the sanctuary of the adjacent high plains, where he finds refuge in an outpost set up by a network of galactic mercenaries.
Relative safety turns out to be unrewarding, however, and with no other way to escape the inhospitable planet, Riddick activates the beacon device that alerts an extensive bounty-hunter network to his location. First to arrive from off-world are Santana (Jordi Molla) and his thuggish cohorts, who collectively possess more brawn than brains. Close behind, Boss Johns (Matt Nable) pilots a better-skilled crew that includes crack sniper Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), the only woman among the testosterone-fueled hunters.
Riddick’s intention, as he makes clear in a message spelled out in a bloody scrawl inside the shelter after his pursuers arrive, is to separate one of the spaceships from its crew and flee. Santana, however, is determined to sever Riddick’s head from his body so he can claim the bounty, particularly since it’s doubled if the fugitive is confirmed dead. Vastly outnumbered and out-armed, Riddick has only the weapons he’s improvised with – materials harvested from the local flora and fauna, along with a fierce native canine he’s managed to semi-domesticate – to fend off the mercenaries and make a break for freedom. Significantly dialing back on “Chronicles’ ” sprawling scale, the latest installment feels tentative even at a flabby 120 minutes, more like a placeholder that barely advances the considerable Riddick mythology.
Playing it safe with a script that offers Riddick up as a lone avenging hero, Twohy passes on the opportunity to effectively shade the character’s distinctive dimensionality.
Plenty of bone crunching and blood gushing, along with some selective nudity, have boosted the movie’s rating up to an “R,” but lacking the distinctive visual style, robust production design and planet-hopping pace of its predecessor, “Riddick” feels mired in stasis. While “Chronicles” was a full-blown space opera, the current iteration is beset by unremarkable CGI effects and tethered to limited locations. Twohy maintains skillful command of the franchise’s Frank Frazetta–inspired imagery and pulp sci-fi narrative template throughout, but it’s all more deliberate than imaginative.
Fortunately, “Riddick” is as indomitable and unrelenting as ever, but even Diesel’s gruff charisma can’t do much to animate the first 30 minutes of the movie, which drag as Riddick struggles to survive on the unfamiliar planet. The legendary convict’s badassery is already well known across the galaxy, making his repetitive victories over the elements and marauding alien carnivores almost entirely dispensable.
Absent any other intelligent life forms, Riddick’s brief monologues and terse comments to his canine companion hardly make for much character conflict. Once the bounty hunters turn up en masse, though, Riddick reverts to form, delivering wisecracking warnings and kicking butt while barely breaking a sweat. Although it’s clear almost from the start that smarmy, machete-wielding Santana is no match for Riddick, John’s cautious, efficient demeanor suggests he may have an actual strategy to corner his prey.
As dueling antagonists, they spend as much time bickering as they do confronting Riddick. Molla’s performance is particularly cartoonish and even borderline comical, in contrast to Nable’s firm-jawed determination. Most of the other characters are nearly interchangeable, heavily armed thugs, with only Sackhoff’s buff, no-nonsense turn as Johns’ loyal ice-queen sniper attracting much notice.
Inevitably setting up another sequel at the movie’s conclusion, Twohy begs the question of where a wanted man with a price on his head who’s exiled from his home planet can really run for sanctuary.
Regardless, Riddick has little time or goodwill to waste if the franchise is to manage a satisfying, coherent conclusion.