No one expected there to be even one sequel to The Fast & the Furious, let alone five of them (so far). Even fewer people thought there'd be a follow-up to Pitch Black, the 2000 sci-fi thriller about people stuck on a planet with carnivorous monsters and a Hannibal Lecter-ish murderer -- and yet then came The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004 and now Riddick, with more sequels on the horizon if this one does well enough. That both unlikely franchises should star Vin Diesel is evidence that he is some kind of enchanted, lucky creature who frequently happens to be in the right place at the right time. He is probably immortal. Don't cross him.
Pitch Black was well-regarded, inexpensive, and not a hit, whereas The Chronicles of Riddick was poorly regarded, very expensive, and also not a hit. Perhaps you recall its ambitious mixture of bombastic fantasy worlds and epic-scale mythology. (It's OK if you don't. I only recall because I re-read my review a few minutes ago.) Riddick wisely takes things back down a notch, returning to Pitch Black's simple formula of scary creatures, scarier humans, and a barren planet, without all the nonsense. David Twohy is back as writer and director (did you see his clever and under-appreciated The Perfect Getaway a few years ago?), and further collaborations between him and his marble-mouthed, gravel-throated muse would not be unwelcome. Maybe the next Riddick movies could have less of a rape-y vibe, though? Just a suggestion.
Riddick starts with some goofy narration by Diesel as the title character. "Don't know how many times I've been crossed off the list and left for dead," he says, pulling himself out of the rubble where his enemies from the last film left him sometime between the end of that movie and the beginning of this one. "There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days. This was shaping up to be one of those." He doesn't know what planet this is, only that it's not his own. "Instead of Furya we end up someplace called ... Not Furya," he tells us. So we're being kind of tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing.
A team of bounty hunters hot on Riddick's trail soon arrives, led by a delightfully insane man named Santana (Jordi Molla, in the Peter Stormare tradition). The substantial reward for bringing Riddick in is doubled if you bring him in dead. Santana has a special box he's going to put Riddick's head in. We get the impression these head-boxes are commonly used in this reality/galaxy/time period. Gonna kill a guy? Well, you'll need a box for his head, of course. You can't decapitate him and then just carry his skull around in a paper bag! What are we, savages?
But soon Santana's team is given unwanted assistance by another group of bounty hunters, this one led by a man named Johns (Matt Nable) whose son was one of the people on the spacecraft that crashed with Riddick back in Pitch Black. (That was 13 years ago in our world. We'll just have to take the movie's word for it.) With one team driven by greed and the other by revenge, both look for Riddick on this howling wasteland of a planet, which is also populated by fearsome aquatic reptile-scorpion creatures, among other dangers. Riddick, meanwhile, is also on the offensive.
It never really gets any more complicated than that -- and that's fine with me. The bounty hunters bicker among themselves and take turns harassing the one female member of the group, the mighty Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), who is adamantly homosexual and a total butt-kicker but who (spoiler alert) eventually consents to have sex with Riddick. There's no such thing as a lesbian when Vin Diesel's around, amirite?? Riddick lays traps for them all, makes two-steps-ahead strategic maneuvers, and still has time to befriend and train a dog-like alien as a pet, all the while working toward his goal of commandeering a vehicle and getting off this stupid rock.
Twohy and Diesel are clearly having fun with their passion project. Their enthusiasm is evident on the screen: You can usually tell the difference between a movie that people made because they wanted to and one they made because they had to. But the third act drags when it should be racing toward the finale, and the flashbacks to earlier storylines (including a cameo from Karl Urban), while perhaps obligatory for the franchise's sake, do nothing to progress the story at hand. But it's mostly passable, slightly dumb sci-fi fun. Vin Diesel's career lives to mumble another day.
Riddick opens wide in theaters across North America on Friday, September 6.