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September 6, 2013

Richard B. Riddick made his first appearance in 2000’s mid-budget Pitch Black, but most people probably know the character from 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. In contrast to the spare Pitch Black, that movie was a bloated, overdone piece of space opera mythologizing that writer/director David Twohy just couldn’t sustain, leading all sorts of critics to make the obvious pun on the character’s name. Nearly a decade later, Twohy seems to have learned his lesson; Riddick sheds the Chronicles baggage and gets back to what made Pitch Black work: a stripped-down, almost claustrophobic R-rated action thriller.

Quickly disposing of the situation Chronicles left him in, the movie opens on an unnamed world, where Riddick (Vin Diesel) has been marooned and left for dead. He quickly adapts and survives, even training a native dog-like creature as a pet.

But eventually Riddick sees a danger coming great enough that his best shot at survival is just to get off the planet entirely; he triggers the emergency beacon at an unmanned mercenary outpost, signaling his presence and the bounty on his head — doubled if the body doesn’t come with it.

In short order, two mercenary teams touch down. One: a rough, tough gang led by a man named Santana (Jordi MollĂ , with Dave Bautista in his entourage); two: a tight paramilitary outfit led by a man named Johns (Matt Nable, backed by Katee Sackhoff and Bokeem Woodbine, among others) who wants Riddick alive despite the bounty. They squabble among each other, which is pretty much the worst thing to do when on the same planet as a quarry as dangerous as this one.

Riddick makes his demands known: leave one ship and go or die here. Of course that’s pretty much the opposite of what these mercenaries are inclined to do, and the rest of the movie plays out as a game of cat-and-mouse where the mice think they’re cats. Oh, and with giant venomous lizards who think both mice and cats are tasty treats.

Nobody is in any danger of confusing Riddick for any sort of deeply insightful or nuanced commentary on the human condition. In fact, I kind of have to call it out for some truly awful gender politics. One of the two women on screen is literally reduced to cargo — admittedly, as part of an effort to characterize her captors as awful people — and the other gets used in the tired old lesbian-conversion male power fantasy, with a strong suggestion that it succeeds.

That all said, as an action movie it works like gangbusters. Someone recently opined that an emphasis on script is sometimes misplaced, since characters in action movies are developed through, well, action rather than dialogue. And Riddick provides one of the best examples of this. The start of the movie is almost completely without words as we watch Riddick acclimate to his harsh environment. We see, for example, that his approach to a vicious opponent is not to finesse his way around, but to build himself up to the point he can take an otherwise deadly bite and counterattack. This shows — shows, not tells — so much about this character with an efficiency no amount of verbal discussion can even approach.

So, yes: Riddick is violent, gory, and more than a little misogynistic. It’s also a wonderfully tight, moody action thriller. It may be over-the-top, but it’s certainly not “ridiculous”.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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