“I don’t know how many times I’ve been crossed off the list and left for dead, so this ain’t nothing new,” Vin Diesel intones in his trademarked gravelly gravitas in what can only be the most succinct prolepsis of a character and a franchise ever provided. Odd that writer-director David Twohy would wish to announce his adherence to convention so forcefully and so quickly (these are the first lines of the film). Indeed, though Riddick quickly escapes his rocky tomb the film struggles to break new ground. Despite critical declarations, however, Riddick is not just a vapid retread of the original. If it only managed that I would have been quite content to write it off, but Twohy teases us with the prospects of a grander and more worthwhile film with his sublime opening act.
Given the current spate of Hollywood action films, there is a good deal to admire about a film that dares to spend its opening ten minutes in silence (after a necessary prologue courtesy of Riddick, mind you). When any words do finally arrive, Twohy infuses them with a complicit edge he must have borrowed from Richard III. Riddick employs the royal we, makes reference to our tidy plans and pressgangs the audience effectively into his struggle for survival. No easy feat for a script to manage with a certifiable bastard like Riddick. Twohy compensates without overdoing his hand by making Riddick’s only companion an adorable mutt. I am delighted to report that the dog “plays”, and I suspect this dingo mongrel will quickly procure and long sustain a place among Hollywood’s memorable scene-stealers, alongside the likes of Castaway’s Wilson, or, for the digitally inclined, The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. Nevermind if the dynamic is lifted almost whole cloth from Harlan Ellison’s novella A Boy and His Dog, or, to a lesser extent, Francis Lawrence’s 2007 I Am Legend. There’s something undeniably humane about a dog. Men can be eviscerated ad nauseum, but Hollywood help the film that dares to damage the dog. Twohy knows this and uses the latter brocard as guilty payoff for the former concession.
That the dog doesn’t get more to say after this opening act wouldn’t be so frustrating if Twohy hadn’t focused the rest of the film on a motley assemblage of tropes all bickering in doggerel verse. “What the fuck?”; “Fuck you!”; “Fuck-stick”: who gives a fuck? Your enjoyment of this crude patois will depend entirely on your interest in Twohy’s mercantile developments of his franchise. Debilitating regress or necessary advancement? (Consider, however, that Diesel literally bet the farm with this film, apparently mortgaging his house to help finance the film.) Though I suspect when you hear a character jokingly admit after a jump-scare that he “just dropped some mud right there” you might wish the dog had been given the bulk of the lines.
If the second film was an overwrought ode to Macbeth, this latest entry might be better understood as hailing Titus Andronicus, the story less refined, the details more crude, the characters de trop. Pity then that Twohy doesn’t do more with his allusions. On this point I suspect Twohy underestimates the almost prurient interest of his audience for Riddick. No doubt humbled by the critical and financial fiasco of his previous Riddick film, Twohy swung the narrative beam into the other spectrum of scale. He may have gone too far.
Still, Twohy does manage some interesting statements. What about that playful homage where Riddick rises out of the broiling depths of a sulphur pool, calling to mind Martin Sheen’s character Captain Willard performing the same in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now? Here Riddick fulfills the Colonel Kurtz role of Brando—he’s even the deposed leader of a death cult. How interesting would the film have been had Twohy managed to keep this narrative conceit going? What becomes of a man who tumbles down a mythic scala naturae? Was Twohy, one wonders, enlightened by a whiff of neoplatonic delusions when he wrote the treatment? Regardless, what a fitting metaphor for Riddick’s life both diegetic and non, from eminence to exile—it has been, after all, nearly a decade since last we saw him.
Twohy was no doubt heavily inspired from watching BBC nature documentaries. Some shots (like the sulphur pools and the scenes of wildlife behaviour) are even borrowed directly from Planet Earth. One must also suspect Twohy had a heavily underlined copy of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces nearby while penning the script: apart from the typical use of the call to action (the search for Furya), Twohy even gives Riddick a threshold guardian, that chimera-like monster, to block his entrance to a higher plane of existence, those edenic pastures waiting just beyond his hellish enclave.
Now if Twohy had dared to stop there, he might have had a compelling intro to the film he seemed to be making. Instead, when the arc of the hero’s journey is completed, Twohy makes the grave mistake of simply doing it all over again. That middle act, choked by bombast and bravado, seems Twohy’s thinly veiled admission he’s run out of tropes to grind. Hoping to pump some life into his anemic story, Twohy turns to Aliens, with Riddick serving as the ineradicable presence tormenting the gung-ho mercs. These ho-hum antics stress a threat of which we’re already aware. We know Riddick is a capable hunter and survivor, not just because we’ve seen the previous two films but because this film has stressed it so admirably for nearly forty minutes. Sitting by and watching characters slowly draw the same conclusion in a protracted sequence borrowed from the opening scene of the Chronicles of Riddick (here extended to an agonizing degree) comes as a glaring contradiction to the inspired brilliance of the moments before.
Nor is this languid middle aided by the fact that David Eggby seems to struggle with the dictates of digital photography. Though by all means a veteran and accomplished DP, Eggby nevertheless provides most shots that unshakeable quality of being studio (over)lit, and, more offensively, being captured on a studio lot. The cinematography does shine however, as only digital truly can, during the night scenes, where the scintillating colour benefits from the pumped up lighting scheme.
Speaking of overbearing, so too is Riddick diminished when subjected to any severe degree of critical focus. The joy of watching Riddick is the appeal of his status as an anti-hero. The strength of the first film rested in Riddick’s vacillating persona between mere antagonist and outright villain, and Twohy understood then that Riddick was at his best when cornered. For then it was his smarmy rejoinders and his capacity for leverage over his would-be captors that proved his strength moreso than his impressive bulk. One could never quite tell if Riddick was simply bluffing or actually telling the truth. Riddick’s charm then was his ineffable capacity to win no matter what the odds. Such is the double bind of Riddick, amiably and unintentionally demonstrated by the first sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick: Riddick is only effective as an anti-hero, but often the expense of being the main protagonist. The first sequel faltered when its narrative required Riddick to function as something he so obviously is not: the hero. Where the first sequel traded character for spectacle and myth-making, however, Twohy makes the blunder of jettisoning everything compelling about Riddick to repurpose him as a vindictive villain for the middle act. How well Twohy would have done to keep up with his Machiavellian ode to Richard III. Riddick’s power to seduce an audience comes from the way he effortlessly toys with his victims, in the process exposing them to be as ruthless as Riddick, if only less capable. Riddick cannot be the villain in this universe for its basic morality cannot permit such a term. And yet, paradoxically, in this film there is never any doubt regarding the deplorable morals of Riddick’s antagonists, and so one must wonder what is gained by making them the focus of the middle act.
Twohy seems understandably apprehensive of audience fatigue with the franchise (this new film retails at nearly $70 million less than its predecessor, not including advertising cost), but in trying to change it up Twohy strips away the most compelling features of Riddick. Far better to have remained with the myth-making he had only just begun to explore. Take as example that unusual moment when Riddick absconds to a stony sarcophagus of his own making, and Twohy allows himself a well-earned moment of narrative exposition where Riddick makes his pilgrimage into the underworld and achieves a brief encounter with his Ka, his transcendent raison d’être: the search for his Furyan soul. How much more fascinating is the journey of this nouveau pharaoh than any band of mercs? The appeal is amplified when the hero is reborn under the auspices of that tumescent red moon like some new god of war. Why then does Twohy implore us to put up with the rest of the film?
Twohy is by no means the first director to employ mythic allusions in his work, and indeed he seems to call attention to this fact by his subtle homages to the genre of the Western. The film’s third act, for example, is heavily indebted to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (I leave the reader to fill in the roles). Or take another example when Riddick emerges out of the desert in an unfocused haze reminiscent of Henry Fonda’s flashback mirage-like entrance in Once Upon A Time In The West, another Leone film (and sporting a poncho like another of Leone’s creations). In those films, as in Twohy’s work to a far lesser degree, the characters are formed and shaped as much by their environments as by the progressions of the plot. More to the point, the characters of say Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson are inexorably linked to the environment. It is the volatile fusion of these two ingredients, according to Leone’s work, whereby the vital presence of the American might be forged. In Leone’s work the novus homo antics work particularly because, to pun on the trope, the birth of this new man coincides with the birth of the nation. How compelling then had Riddick in fact traded one kingdom for another—the death cult of the Necromongers for the dead lands of Furya? How intriguing if all this apotheosis was conducted on the very land Riddick seeks to form into a nation? But then I suppose these sci-fi stories must leave just enough of a narrative ledge for the audience to hang from, until another sequel at least. The problem is not so much that Twohy engages this practice as it is that it comes at the expense of his initial story. What does Riddick want? To find a home. What does this film provide? A lengthy sojourn into hell. But then I don’t see why Twohy couldn’t have accomplished both.
As it happens, and as the beginning of this film proves, there does seem a market for myth and myth-making in cinema. Twohy’s failing with this film seems his inability to exploit it sufficiently, and to elevate his material to the transcendent heights he alludes to in his first act. Hope for a sequel indeed.
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