Having been left for dead in more ways than one after the critical and commercial failure of 2004’s “The Chronicles of Riddick,” Vin Diesel’s futuristic fugitive Richard B. Riddick gets his lean, mean, R-rated mojo back for “Riddick,” an improbable but very enjoyable sequel that recaptures much of the stripped-down intensity of Diesel and director David Twohy’s franchise starter “Pitch Black” (while treating “Chronicles” like the dream season of “Dallas”). Once again pitting Diesel’s eponymous anti-hero against human and alien adversaries on a rugged desert planet, this exuberantly gory chase pic won’t orbit the same box office galaxy as the star’s “Fast & Furious” series, but will have no trouble recouping its reported $38 million budget (one-third the cost of “Chronicles”).
In an image that can be seen as a metaphor for the entire Riddick franchise, the new film opens with Diesel emerging from under a pile of boulders and resetting a badly broken leg — the old-fashioned way. And for most of the fairly terrific 30 minutes that follow, “Riddick” resembles nothing so much as an outer-space remake of the 1966 Cornel Wilde adventure “The Naked Prey,” with Diesel on the run from all manner of carnivorous creatures, including “alien jackals” that look like the offspring of a zebra and a pit bull. (Riddick even manages to domesticate one, which becomes a surprisingly endearing companion.) You can see here why it has been the actor’s long-held dream project to star in a film about Hannibal crossing the Alps.
In one of few acknowledgments that the events of the bloated, “Dune”-like “Chronicles” even happened, a brief flashback explains that Riddick — having, at the end of that film, been crowned “Lord Marshal” of a band of religious fanatics known as Necromongers (don’t ask) — quickly tired of the despot life and struck out in search of his long-lost home planet, Furya. Instead, he ended up here, a planet identified only as “not Furya,” betrayed by his escorts and left to fend for himself. It doesn’t take long for Riddick’s trademark light-sensitive eyes to discern that he’s not alone — in addition to the aforementioned jackals, the place is positively swarming with fanged, slithery “mud demons,” who take to water the way the winged, hammer-headed beasties of “Pitch Black” took to the night. And wouldn’t you just know it: Out there on the horizon, a big old storm is brewing.
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That’s bad news for Riddick, but even worse news for the two rival teams of bounty hunters (or “mercs” in Riddick-speak) who have latterly landed on the planet in search of the man who remains one of the universe’s most wanted. One such group is led by Santana (the excellent Jordi Molla), a reckless firebrand in the Tony Montana mold, while the other is captained by Johns (Matt Nable), a no-nonsense mercenary whose name will instantly ring a bell to the “Pitch Black” faithful. Indeed, for him Riddick isn’t just another bounty; he’s a personal vendetta.
That sets the stage for what is effectively a sleeker, more accomplished, but no less enjoyable “Pitch Black” remake, with rain substituted for darkness, and Riddick and his would-be captors once again forced to work together — or at least pretend to — if they want to make it off Not Furya alive. And if nothing in “Riddick” ever quite tops that opening act, when it seems as though the entire movie might be a solo Diesel performance piece, even at its most conventional this is a solid, unpretentious B-movie entertainment of the sort John Carpenter was regularly turning out in the 1980s and ‘90s, populated by the kind of snub-nosed men (and women) of action favored by Carpenter’s own professed idol: Howard Hawks. To wit, Riddick nearly meets his match here in the form of Johns’ second-in-command, the steely, ass-kicking Dahl (“Battlestar Galactica” star Katee Sackhoff), who succinctly summarizes her character in two lines of dialogue: “I don’t fuck guys. Occasionally, I fuck them up if they need it.”
Twohy, who has become a markedly more confident filmmaker with each successive movie (his last was the ingeniously twisty tropical noir “A Perfect Getaway”), has a grand old time, setting the action against matte-painted vistas that recall many a 1960s space opera and framing it all in spare, deep-focus widescreen compositions. (The cinematography is by David Eggby, who shot “Pitch Black” as well as the original “Mad Max,” a key visual reference here.) And where “Chronicles” overdosed on cartoonish CGI, “Riddick” returns to the “Pitch Black” formula of mixing animated elements with practical effects and puppetry, creating a tactile otherworldly environment that ranges from the sets to the props to the creatures (designed by the great Patrick Tatopoulos) themselves.
Throughout, Diesel cuts a most imposing figure, surprisingly lithe despite his bulk, and with an acerbic wit that keeps things light without ever approaching the cutesy. He is a most unusual movie star — or maybe the herald, along with his sometimes co-star the Rock, of a new breed of movie star — with his shiny bald pate, Barry White basso profondo and indeterminate ethnicity. But the camera unmistakably loves him — and judging from the cheers that erupted at the screening attended, from the mere presence of his name in the opening credits, so does the audience.