Before Vin Diesel was XXX and before he got behind the wheel as Dominic Toretto, he was Richard B. Riddick in Pitch Black, a small-budgeted creature flick that far exceeded expectations. It was delightfully simple in premise, centering on a group of people stranded on a desolate planet and attacked by its native nocturnal predators. Riddick, known for his famous "night shine" eyes, became a popular new character in the sci-fi realm, and the first proof of Diesel's future stardom. But then Universal screwed it all with the misguided sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, an expensive and convoluted PG-13(!!!) mess that nearly shattered any franchise hopes. But through years of cultivating his audience and picking their brains about what they wanted most out of the series, Diesel has returned with the fourth (if you include the animated Dark Fury, which I definitely do) entry, Riddick, an economical and solidly entertaining film that recaptures everything that made Pitch Black such a cult favorite.
Immediately it's obvious the gloss and sheen of the last film are gone, replaced with the gritty, washed-out look of the original. The yellowish tint that marks the ruinous locale may not be pretty, but it’s far superior to the artificiality that plagued 'Chronicles'. Beginning in shockingly pulpy fashion, the film finds the bad ass Furyan stranded on a planet not unlike the one from Pitch Black. Beaten, battered, and defeated in a way we've never seen Riddick before, it's clear that something's not quite right. As he struggles to survive encounters with a pack of monstrous dingoes, eventually taking on one as a sort of sidekick, we learn through flashback that he was betrayed and left for dead. Riddick, who became king of the Necromongers (don't ask) at the end of the prior film, has let leadership make him soft. What better way to get back his lost savagery than by taking on an entire planet full of bloodthirsty creatures?
The first hour of the film is spent with Riddick in full survivalist mode as he tries to figure out a way past a poisonous hydra monster that looks like it was ripped straight out of Alien. While it gets a little tedious watching him build up immunity to its venom and navigating mountains, it’s also refreshing to see the film bask in its Predator-esque roots. However it's still a lengthy slog, a long way to go before a team of mercenaries arrive and the plot actually begins. Yes, there's an entire separate storyline you have to wait for, but that's also when things get really bloody and very fun.
Forced to activate a distress beacon, Riddick soon finds himself surrounded by two teams of mercs, all looking to collect on the bounty placed on his head. And if they walk away with Riddick's head in a box, even better because the bounty will be doubled. The lead merc is Santana (Jordi Molla), the cockiest killer by far and thus the most foolish. We know immediately what his fate will be, and that it will be especially gruesome. Diesel's Guardians of the Galaxy co-star Dave Bautista is the hulking brute Diaz; Battlestar Galactica nerds will get to see Katee Sackhoff nude as Dahl; and Matt Nable (a Jeremy Renner clone in look and voice) is Boss Johns, and if his name sounds familiar then you know way more about the Chronicles of Riddick chronology than any sane person should. Suffice it to say, he's got a reason to want Riddick dead, and it's a mystery that plays out in fits and starts throughout.
From here the action picks up as Riddick goes from the hunted to the hunter, picking off his pursuers one-by-one. Even when he's ultimately captured he's still the most dangerous guy in the room, who proves to be just as deadly with his tongue as with a serrated blade. After the bland "all-ages" Riddick from 'Chronicles' it's a treat to see him back to being a vulgar and nasty killer. Every other character is a cheap cardboard cut-out with dialogue slathered in melted cheese, but they serve their purpose either as cannon fodder or targets of Riddick's chaotic masculinity.
What's most obvious about the film is that Diesel and series writer/director David Twohy put everything they had into it. It was Diesel who fought hard with the studio to secure the R-rating because he knew the fans wanted the gore and violence, and when the self-financed production faced a potential shut down it was him who put up the cash to get it moving again. While there are moments when you can see the cracks around the edges, visually it doesn't look cheaply produced, and what low budget qualities it has only solidify that this is a franchise going back to its roots. Without completely ignoring Chronicles of Riddick or rehashing Pitch Black, they've set Riddick back on the right track. The obvious plan is for this to be the first in what will probably be a series of sequels, and with the character free from excess baggage that's a prospect once again worth looking forward to.