Monday, June 14, 2004

The Chronicles of Riddick

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 June 2004 at Loews Boston Common #16 (first-run)

I was jazzed for this in the same way I was jazzed for Spider-Man. Not just because it's a character I like, but because I absolutely love the idea of a studio giving one of my favorite genre directors a thoroughly ridiculous amount of money and telling them to go for it. David Twohy has earned himself some major cool points with The Arrival, Pitch Black, and Below, and now he was getting called up to the big leagues.

He does OK. Riddick is a slick, exciting ride packed with action, and a potent reminder of why Vin Diesel was pegged as the next big thing a few years ago. Twohy mostly handles his big budget pretty well, mostly avoiding the "more" trap and focusing on "cool". He also serves up a good script - it's a sequel to Pitch Black, but also very much its own thing. Indeed, I've heard that Universal has hopes for it to be the first movie of a trilogy/franchise, and supplies all the information someone who has never seen Pitch Black might need. And dang if Twohy doesn't serve up a great final scene, which caps the movie and makes me desperate to know what will happen next in just the way the ends of the Lord Of The Rings movies don't.

I get all this, and yet I expect more from Twohy. The Arrival and Pitch Black were smart bits of science fiction, with Twohy able to evoke a sense of wonder and mix it with terror, and everything had an explanation that was grounded in the real. Riddick is softer sci-fi, Star Wars-soft, with "air elementals" and souls being ripped from bodies and seers and holy crusades. Where Pitch Black would come up with something clever like using bioluminescent lichens for torches, Riddick all too often just uses the sci-fi trappings. The bad guys can render a planet lifeless, but their superweapon is built on nothing stronger than the writer needing a big threat. Twohy's better than this (and is certainly better than an army that ravages entire planets fighitng with knives).

But if Riddick isn't quite as inventive as some of the filmmaker's earlier work (with the exception of a nifty scene where Riddick and company try to stay within the terminator between light and dark on a planet of extremes), it's got a solid script. Diesel's role is a little more meaty than just plain badass, and it fits him like a glove. Just as Arnold Schwarzeneggar was born to play a killing machine, Twohy knows how to shoot Vin in such a way to make the audience believe that, yes, this "Furyan" is something more than an ordinary human. He and Alexa Davalos - as one of the other survivors of Pitch Black and now working her way up to being nearly the badass Riddick is - have a great sort of chemistry together. And while Colm Feore and Karl Urban don't quite have the charisma to be worthy adverseries, Thandie Newton vamps her way through her scenes in an entertaining manner while Dame Judi Dench makes the most of a somewhat silly role. Linus Roache has a role that would be thankless except for one great, pivitol scene.

I'd like it if the action were a little clearer, although when one fight scene moves faster than the eye can really follow, it does at least make the impression that Riddick is really, really good at this as opposed to the director just not being able to hold his camera still. I suppose that's why sci-fi action movies always come down to a knife fight of some sort; the close-in brawl is a better visual than the long-range gunfights future combat would likely actually come down to.

One should always try to judge a work objectively, as opposed to for what one thinks the director should have done. I fail that here, I know, although I get the impression Twohy is just getting started. (In more ways than one; Universal appears to be giving Chronicles the same sort of full-franchise push with an animated tie-in DVD and a proposed TV series that Van Helsing got.) Which is exciting, since I know he hasn't yet tapped his full potential.

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