Monday, September 9, 2013

"Riddick" Review: Riddick's Return Starts Out Strong But Stumbles When Crossing The Finish Line

While never commercially successful (Pitch Black was a cult hit and it’s very expensive follow up Chronicles of Riddick was a financial flop), there is a certain appeal to the Riddick franchise that remains alluring to this day. However, after the failure of the second film, Universal shelved the franchise, a decision that made most think that the possibility of seeing a third Riddick film was nothing more than pure fantasy.

Then with the help of a rabid (but small) fanbase, a devoted director and star, both of whom actually purchased the rights to the franchise from Universal and subsequently gave them back distribution rights for the finished film, we have ourselves a new (and final?) chapter in the ongoing chronicles of Riddick. The question is though, after nearly a decade, does anyone still care about the infamous anti-hero or more to the point, is it capable of jump starting the franchise back to its initial popularity? Read the full review after the break.

At the conclusion of Chronicles of Riddick, the escaped convict and murderer Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) found himself crowned Lord Marshall of the Necromongers, a race of people who scavenge and destroy every planet they land on. Sitting on the throne had dulled Riddick’s senses however and soon he finds himself stranded and left for dead on a remote and hostile world. After bringing himself back from the brink of death, he decides it’s time to leave this barren world and makes a distress call off-world. His message reaches a number of interested parties, including two different groups of bounty hunters, who aren’t all that interesting in just giving him a lift. Problem for them though is that Riddick isn’t planning on going home as their prisoner either.

Just before the end credits rolled for the last film, we saw an image of a troubled Riddick sitting upon a throne that he won almost by mistake. At the time it was interesting to think what a possible third film would entail if we were to ever get one. Would we see Riddick become a ruthless leader like the previous Lord Marshall? Would he find a reason to live beyond just surviving bounty attack after bounty attack? More importantly, would we finally see Riddick ditch his mantra of only looking out for himself and actually find it in himself to lead such a vast army? If you shared those questions or questions like those, then prepare to be a little let down.

Due mainly to financial reasons (writer/director David Twohy and Diesel financed the film on their own), the scope to this new film is largely scaled back to a much more intimate setting. As opposed to the epic feeling of Chronicles, this third entry into the series mimics much of what fans loved so much about the first film, the isolation, the tension and plenty of little beasties to crash the party. But most of all we see the return of Riddick, the elusive man with those shined eyes to see in the dark, that dangerous man who is feared by both the law and criminals alike.

Say what you will about Vin Diesel as an actor, he was born to play this role. Most actors search their entire careers to find a role like this, that one character that epitomizes who they are which no other film is able to do (not even the much more successful Fast & Furious franchise). Riddick, the character, embodies that anti-hero role perfectly, he is both ruthless and honorable…in his own special way that is. Diesel’s natural somber temperament, that hushed gravely voice and his physicality are the perfect match for a character like Riddick, which is likely why he loves the character so much.

The character of Riddick is the sole reason these film’s have persisted, not the stories they tell. Pitch Black worked as well as it did because of Riddick. It was a fine creature feature, but in the end it was Riddick that made that film ultimately standout (and gave Diesel’s career a nice boost). Chronicles of Riddick tried admirably to expand the world which Riddick inhabited, but despite its many successes, it lost focus of what we loved so much about that first film, Riddick’s ability to be both the good guy and the bad guy. Instead he was turned into the reluctant hero who had a tattered past which wasn’t the Riddick we came to love from that first film.

Now, by bringing the focus back squarely on Riddick and ditching that expansive universe in favor of a more simplified narrative, Twohy and Diesel have found their footing again. Whether it was the budget constraints (which is likely) or this is where they were planning on taking the character all along (which is less likely), this is the best possible thing that could have happened to Riddick and this franchise, but sadly it’s still not without its flaws.

The film can essentially be broken up into three separate pieces. Just like a three course meal, you have yourself the appetizer, the entree and the dessert. Dependent on whether or not you like the character of Riddick or either of the two previous films, your mileage will vary with this new outing. It isn’t interested in bringing new fans into the fold (as demonstrated by its cold opening sequence which gives very little background), it is more interested in preserving what we liked about the franchise and not looking back while doing it.

Continuing with the food analogy, as mentioned, Riddick is three movies in one, but don’t think this is a genre mash-up, cause it isn’t. Each part is divided into equal parts with little to no overflow from one to the other. There are two problems with this structure though, first and foremost is that when the shifts occur and we move from one segment to the next, the film begins to actually does begin to feel like three different movies, never a good thing. Second is that usually not all the segments have an equal or consistent quality to them, which is the case here.

Let’s start with the appetizer, the beginning of the film and honestly it’s best part. An appetizer is supposed to tease your palate, preparing it for the meal to come. That is exactly what the first thirty to forty minutes of the film does, placing Riddick in this man versus wild scenario was a genius move by Twohy. We have seen Riddick kill countless people, we have seen him fight his way out of purgatory, but we have never seen him struggle to survive in the wild, so to speak. This was the perfect lead up to the more complicated battles to come and did exactly what an appetizer is supposed to do, it teased what was to come.

Next is the entree, the main course, the protein that is supposed to fill you up and leave you satisfied. The middle section of Riddick ditches the more enjoyable survivalist aspects and takes us right back into a more familiar scenario with Riddick versus bounty hunters. Two teams of bounty hunters for that matter, who have brought all kinds of toys to try and take him out with. While it starts to cover well trodden ground at this point, the film gets points for switching up the perspective and showing the events from the bounty hunter’s point of view when they show up. It’s a strange switch, but one that works well in providing some much needed tension, some unexpected chuckles whenever someone falls into one of Riddick’s traps and an air of mystery to the proceedings.

Finally there is the dessert, the part of the meal that is supposed to punctuate everything that came before it. Here is where the film unfortunately falters a little. After doing such a fantastic job establishing this desolate world with the opening survival segment and then introducing a stable of generic, but interesting bounty hunters who find themselves way in over their head (including a well cast Katee Sackhoff as the only female in the film), this final push towards the end not only reaffirms the beliefs held by many that this is simply a retread of Pitch Black, but also sucks out all the tension and great character moments that came before it.

What is it that killed the momentum exactly? The creatures, the one thing many people will likely go see the film for is the one thing that sucks all the life out of what up until that point, was a clever and fun bit of hard R Science Fiction fantasy action adventure escapism. It’s not that the creatures look bad (the effects for the film in general are spotty, but never to its detriment), they just lack any sort of personality. Perhaps its their design or how quickly they are thrown into the third act and quickly discarded, but they never evoke any sort of real menace. Even when Riddick throws down with them, it barely raises a pulse. His scenes with the bounty hunters were much more fulfilling and entertaining.

This is a clear cut case of excellent set up, great execution and a poor dismount. When you have a meal that consists of an amazing appetizer, a great entree and a lackluster dessert, it threatens to ruin the entire experience. All those great tastes from before are washed away by the bitter aftertaste of an ill prepared final dish. While that isn’t exactly the case for Riddick, it’s final moments do end the film on a rather uninspired note. Thankfully though, the early parts of the film are so strong, as is Vin Diesel’s continued dominance in the role that made him a star, that you can easily look past it’s weak conclusion and begin hoping we see another Riddick film sooner rather than later this time.

If you are a fan of the other two films, chances are you will come away from the film pleased, if not just a tinge bit disappointed. Disappointed only because it was doing so well and it was just a shame they couldn’t keep it together to finish as strong as it started. But the positives far outweigh the negatives, which results in a film that is far from perfect, but also far from the worst thing released this year. Just make sure that if you go see Riddick in theaters this weekend, it is to see Riddick back in action doing what he does best and not to see him killing a bunch of CG creatures. If that’s what you want, just watch Pitch Black again cause it did that much better than this.


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