The quickest and easiest way to humanize an unlikeable movie character is to give him a lovable dog, and so it goes with Riddick. The eponymous protagonist of David Twohy’s science-fiction thriller is a loner, an ex-convict and a stone-cold killer. All of which would be an impediment toward audience identification were it not for the fact that, five minutes into the movie, he adopts – okay, kidnaps – a hybrid hyena-wolf puppy and makes it his new best friend.
Misery loves company, after all, and as Riddick opens, its namesake is as miserable as he has been at any point in his own personal trilogy of films dating back to 2000’s Pitch Black. When last we left Vin Diesel’s bald-pated badass, he had been inadvertently crowned the king of a planet full of military fanatics, but governance wasn’t the big guy’s strong suit. Rudely deposed and summarily deposited on a dusty desert planet crawling with deadly indigenous creatures, he’s forced into survival mode.
The first 30 minutes of Riddick play a little bit like an intergalactic gloss on Cast Away, methodically chronicling one man’s lonely pitched battle against an unfriendly habitat. These passages are compelling enough that it’s almost disappointing when a team of bounty hunters touches down to collect the price on Riddick’s head: The pace slackens and the coiled, silent tension of the opening sequences gets replaced by lots of profane meathead banter. But Twohy, an expert genre filmmaker whose brilliant 2009 critical favourite A Perfect Getaway was an exercise in narrative sleight of hand, knows exactly what he’s doing. After getting up close and personal with Riddick for the film’s first act, he transforms him into a lurking, peripheral presence for most of this extended middle section – a predator picking off his well-armed adversaries one by one.
The most refreshing thing about Riddick is how low the story’s stakes are. The fate of humanity never hangs in the balance; the question is how this borderline sociopath is going to kill off the equally unlikeable jerks who have been dispatched to place his skull in a box. In lieu of blockbuster spectacle, Twohy spins wittily choreographed scenes of small-scale carnage, most of it initiated by Riddick himself. Diesel’s work here is the flip side to his avuncular car thief in the Fast and Furious franchise. There, he plays a decent guy who keeps getting reluctantly pulled back into criminal activities; by contrast, Riddick is so comfortable rooting around in the darkness that his only stumbles come when he chooses to lighten up.
It barely matters that none of the other actors can match Diesel’s offhand magnetism, since the whole point of Riddick is that its protagonist is double-tough enough to fend off monsters and mercenaries all by himself (or with a little help from that feisty CGI dog). It’s obvious that Twohy, a veteran sci-fi director who has always written his own scripts, identifies with his iconoclastic anti-hero, and if there’s something a little creepy about the valorization of a villain, it also comes as an antidote to the goody two-shoes attitudes in The Lone Ranger and Man of Steel. Nasty, brutish and maybe a little bit too long at nearly two hours, Riddick is finally a curious cinematic delicacy: a deliciously tasteless slab of pure B-grade pulp.