'Riddick' review: Vin Diesel's character is abrasive but most moviegoers will find something to like

'Riddick' delivers an accessible and entertaining sci-fi action experience for those who don't know the previous movies, while longtime series fans will also be pleased. 'Riddick' stars Vin Diesel and Katee Sackhoff.

Universal Pictures/AP
'Riddick' stars Vin Diesel.

Riddick serves as a direct sequel to The Chronicles of Riddick as the titular antihero abandons the Necromonger throne to seek out his homeworld, Furya. Riddick (Vin Diesel) leaves peacefully and the Necromongers agree to escort him on his journey – only to maroon the fugitive on an unknown planet with highly evolved (and subsequently extremely lethal) animal life.

As Riddick recovers, he begins exploring the planet in an effort to find transport off-world. With time against him, as well as a ruthless alien threat on the horizon, he makes a desperate move – and sends out an open channel distress signal, alerting a group of merciless bounty hunters to his location. Ruthless and well-armed the mercenaries prepare to take Riddick dead or alive (the bounty doubles if he’s dead) – meaning, if he hopes for return to Furya, Richard B. Riddick will have to fight through some of the most dangerous humans and alien creatures he’s ever encountered.

Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick director/writer David Twohy returns for the sequel, but fresh eyes from Unknown screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell help the latest Riddick installment walk a fine line between franchise past and future. For that reason, Riddick will have no problem pleasing longtime fans of the series while also delivering an accessible and entertaining sci-fi action experience for casual moviegoers. The movie reinstates Riddick‘s R-Rating – so uninitiated viewers who aren’t familiar with the Riddick character (along with his trademark brutality, sexual innuendo, and deranged morality) could find certain elements of the character (as well as the larger movie) off-putting. Still, Riddick’s abrasive and lethal personality is part of the fun – and has always been what sets the character apart from comparable Hollywood heroes.

The opening moments of Riddick are tied to the events of The Chronicles of Riddick (2006) but the overall structure and tone are much closer to franchise-starter Pitch Black. The Riddick storyline actually draws a number of direct connections to events in the original film and offers-up several fan service nods as well as thematic parallels – so many, in fact, that some viewers may want to brush-up on the prior installments (mainly Pitch Black) if they wish to get the most out of Riddick‘s story. That said, revisiting past movies in the franchise is not required, as viewers who are willing to let a few references and revelations pass by will find that Twohy is surprisingly good at laying out all of the necessary pieces for the events at hand.

Surprisingly, in spite of all the franchise backstory, references, pertinent exposition, a dingo-like sidekick, and a roster of diverse mercenary characters, Riddick is actually pretty straightforward – with an intriguing three-act structure that keeps the plot tight and engaging. The first third of the film sets the bar high, with a minimalistic survival story that is both unique and captivating – while managing to show a more vulnerable Riddick (without softening his personality or skills). Yet, even as the film locks into a more familiar monster-killing/CGI action-thriller, Twohy has enough smart elements in the mix that keep the film sharp – even when it borrows heavily from Pitch Black as well as other sci-fi favorites.

As mentioned, the Riddick character is explored as well as challenged in a number of interesting ways this round. While some moviegoers unfairly dismiss Diesel as a one-note muscle head, the actor has kept busy honing his craft over the last decade – and it shows in Riddick. Diesel has injected (a few) subtleties into the character that the star could not have presented thirteen years ago. Consequently, this version of Riddick is the most interesting, honest, and outright believable of the series – making him even more terrifying (and at times humorous) than ever before.

The supporting cast is a solid roster of characters that make for appealing Riddick (and monster) fodder. A few of the bounty hunters – most notably Santana (Jordi Mollà), an unscrupulous mercenary, and Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk), a devout Christian – fall into predictable arcs that provide a few laugh-worthy moments but never escape one-note cliche. Fortunately, the remaining crew is a bit more nuanced, most notably Boss Johns (Matt Nable) – who has complicated backstory to unpack with Riddick. Katee Sackhoff gives a welcome (but equally no-nonsense) dose of girl power into the team as Dahl. It’s another strong female role for the actress, and Dahl is instrumental in the success of the Riddick story (aided by fun banter between her and the titular antihero); unfortunately, the part doesn’t allow Sackhoff to stretch very far out of Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica) typecasting. Dave Bautista (soon to be seen in Guardians of the Galaxy) is another standout. A formidable presence with surprisingly keen comedic timing, Bautista offers slick fisticuffs as well as several big laughs.

Honorable mention goes to the Riddick effects team – who create one of the most believable CG animal companions in recent memory. A sizable dingo-like dog, the animal is instrumental in bringing out new sides of Riddick’s personality – resulting in some especially amusing moments. The alien threat this round is equally well-realized through convincing effects and imaginative creature design – even more intimidating than the Pitch Black Bioraptors that helped sell Riddick as a potential franchise antihero. As a result, audiences can expect that with a more formidable set of otherworldly monsters to fight, Riddick also delivers plenty of solid action set pieces that mix practical and digital effects (instead of the overly CGI environments and brawls that undercut The Chronicles of Riddick).

Riddick is also playing as an IMAX Experience and while the sprawling alien landscapes look (and sound) great in the premium format, most frugal filmgoers will likely find the overall presentation isn’t worth the added cost. In certain scenes, IMAX is actually a distraction more than a benefit – as the film quickly cuts back and forth between fullscreen and widescreen shots within a single sequence. Viewers who simply want a bigger and louder Riddick experience are the only ones that should spring for the higher price.

Despite some underwhelming adherences to stock sci-fi stories and characters, as well as moments of eye-rolling dialogue and a few indulgent character beats, Riddick offers a solid action-horror experience. A more experienced performance from Vin Diesel helps transition Riddick from an over-the-top action hero into a fully realized character that is actually capable of sustaining a quality film franchise. While longtime fans will surely enjoy seeing Riddick back on the big screen, the latest series installment should have no problem drawing in non-fans too – not to mention set the stage for further chronicles of Richard B. Riddick.

Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.

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