Building The Case For RIDDICK: The Great Postmodern Action Hero

I’m an unabashed fan of the Riddick character that filmmaker David Twohy and star Vin Diesel have forged together and brought back from the brink what seems like several times already. But before I get into all that and review the latest installment in the adventures of Richard B. Riddick, Intergalactic Barbarian King, I want to do something I’ve never done before. I want to just throw out a bunch of free-association thoughts that kept popping into my mind while watching Riddick (and ever since.) I’ve got to get them out somehow:

  • I’d love to see a Riddick point and click adventure game ala what the good folks at Telltale are doing. I know the Riddick character has already gotten one of the only good movie-tie-in games in video game history with Escape From Butcher Bay, but I’d genuinely love to take the reigns of Riddick in an adventure game format since the movies already have a decidedly adventure game feel to them.
  • When Vin Diesel gets naked and prances around in the moonlight of a desolate planet… it makes me think maybe he should’ve been cast as Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. Key word: maybe.
  • The Riddick character’s life is very similar to that of Little Mac’s from the classic NES game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Essentially, Riddick lives his life by observing his opponents (in Riddick’s case, every other creature in the universe), figuring out their trick, and then exploiting that trick to gain the knock out. Maybe my undying love for both Punch-Out and Riddick are inseparably connected?
  • Katee Sackhoff must, at all costs, get cast in a huge budget James Cameron movie. She would make the ultimate Cameron heroine. Sackhoff’s Dahl is the only real female character in this film but she absolutely steals the show in the brief screen time she’s given. Can we promote her to at least the B list if not the A list now?
  • Essentially every single character in a Riddick movie that isn’t Riddick has a Dr. Loomis from Halloween function. They exist to either build up or venerate the legendary status of Riddick, much like Loomis became the mouthpiece of Michael Myers, expositing of his evil so we all know. The cast of Riddick are his oracles, announcing his awesomeness to the galaxy.

Okay, let’s get down to the business of reviewing this film now that my free association exercise is over.

As I mentioned, I love Richard B. Riddick. I saw Pitch Black by myself in a theater and went absolutely nuts for the movie. And when I emerged from The Chronicles Of Riddick with a big, fat smile on my face, I was genuinely confused upon hearing the general consensus that the movie sucked. Sure, a few years of perspective and maturation have allowed me to see all the chinks in Chronicle’s armor. (I’ve tried outrunning the sunrise a few times with middling results.) I get where the haters are coming from, I really do. But Riddick is just the kind of character that is made for me. Like, forged from the fires of Mount Doom to specifically create goofy grins on my face.

So I’ve already laid myself bare here, guys. I freely admit to loving not just Pitch Black but also Chronicles of Riddick. Why not go a little farther when I say that not only did I also love Riddick, but I think Twohy and Diesel’s character might be one of the ultimate post-modern action heroes of our generation.

Diesel himself has never ascended to the pantheon of great action movie leads. He isn’t quite a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger. But his character Riddick (and I do mean HIS character since he has smartly secured the rights from Universal) offers the ultimate distillation of the one man army that Sly and Arnold perfected, and also brings in a self-awareness and even self-deprication that cynical audiences of the 2000s now require. Twohy and Diesel have created a character that I can cheer for both genuinely and ironically, and sometimes even both in the same moment!

As a for instance, a couple of the points I made above in bullet form. When Riddick narrates in a very meta way that he had “lost his edge” in the previous film (a clear reference to the perceived bloat of the second entry and the PG-13 rating as well), he symbolically quests to gain his edge back by… stripping naked and walking before the full moon to re-connect with his primal self. Don’t try to tell me that Vin Diesel and David Twohy aren’t certain that some fans will crack up at this moment, and some fans will swoon genuinely at The Full Dies. They get it. They know.

Or the Dr. Loomis thing I mentioned. One man armies were super awesome in the 1980s. We accepted with zero irony that John Rambo could single-handedly oust the Russian army from Afganistan in Rambo III. But Twohy and Diesel know that 2013 audiences can’t entirely accept this notion anymore. We want to believe that Riddick can never be defeated. But mere close ups of sweaty biceps in 2013 aren’t going to convince us. We need the entire cast to offer us varying levels of myth-building to let Riddick become legend. In Riddick, mercenaries tell stories about him, they fear him, and they revere him. It takes a village now to raise a one man army. And working together, this team of Dr. Loomis’ herald the unending awesomeness of Riddick, allowing Diesel to occasionally toy with self-deprication while still venerating his favorite character.

I’m very aware that this argument that Riddick might be the ultimate post-modern action hero isn’t going to be espoused by many. The box office figures for the Riddick films alone are enough real-world evidence to suggest that the Riddick character simply doesn’t have the traction with wider audiences that many of Sly or Arnold’s most iconic characters had. But I know the unique sense of fun and enjoyment that I get from these Riddick films and I stand by the idea that Twohy and Diesel are bringing to viewers exactly what they want to. These guys know what they are doing, and they are having a blast doing it.

So what about this third installment in the franchise? How does it hold up? Like the stripped down title suggests, Riddick reigns itself in from the massive excess and spectacle of Chronicles and essentially manages to almost remake Pitch Black while simultaneously advancing the overall tale of Richard B. Riddick in a satisfying way. My understanding is that Riddick was made for a small fraction of what Chronicles was budgeted at; and while I loved Chronicles, I think this scaled back scope allows for a more creative team approach.

Whereas Pitch Black was a monster movie with a break-out performance from a larger than life character, Chronicles was more of an action space opera. Riddick manages to actually focus so solely on our lead character that it is able to morph genres quite a few times over the course of the film and offers an episodic, serialized feel that reminded me of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs a little bit. In act one there is a survivalist element, almost like a science fiction 127 Hours. Riddick is alone, injured, and this cold-open doesn’t explain where he is or why he is here for quite some time. It feels confident and streamlined. Always a couple steps ahead of the audience and everyone else, Riddick sets the rest of the film’s action into play by intentionally activating a beacon that brings a few rival factions of interstellar bounty hunters to bring him in. The movie then becomes a siege film. We get to know these bounty hunters for a while and Riddick gets to be a ghostly assailant, picking them off one by one. There are little mini-genre exercises here, like the ultra-tense bomb-disarming scene, various beats of stealth action, and a fair amount of ensemble comedy as well. The third act is Pitch Black all over again, a full on space monster film that still manages to be tons of fun while being shockingly similar to the first film in the series.

Sometimes I like films to have a tight, laser focus. But Riddick, with it’s sometimes sloppy and occasionally unsuccessful shifts in style, feels like a toy box. David Twohy and Vin Diesel will, in my opinion, never run out of fun things for the Riddick character to do. They both love this guy, and by dropping him into a siege scenario, then a survivalist scenario, then a fantasy space melodrama, and so on… they are showing us that Riddick can go anywhere and be anything. And like Conan the Barbarian or John Carter… I’d like to follow this character through dozens of pulpy, brisk, rip-roaring action stories to come. If rights-owner Diesel and Twohy can keep cranking these movies out at a reasonable budget, I think they’ll be able to keep making a profit and having a blast in the Riddick sandbox.

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