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The Chronicles of Riddick   B

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: David Twohy
Writer: David Twohy
Cast: Vin Diesel, Thandie Newton, Karl Urban, Colm Feore, Linus Roache, Keith David, Yorick van Wageningen, Alexa Davalos, Nick Chinlund, Judi Dench.

Review by Rob Vaux

To quote an earlier denizen of this universe, "It's amazing how you can do without the necessities of life provided you have the little luxuries." The Chronicles of Riddick carries a backbone of hysterical pomposity unseen since David Lynch's Dune -- huge and gaudy, dripping with self-importance that pleads to be deflated. But director David Twohy brings so many great little touches to the mix that it's hard not to nod in approval. Goofy army of death-worshippers plot to conquer the universe? Monosyllabic antihero the only thing that can stop them? Hollywood non sequiturs like smoking-hot starlets hanging out in maximum-security penal colonies? It's all good, man; look at Vin Diesel flash those wicked knives!

To clarify, high standards are not this movie's aim. A nominal sequel to the surprise hit Pitch Black, it has a bigger budget and higher ambitions, but the spirit remains cheerfully B-movie. Which in this case isn't a flaw. It wants to deliver the usual spate of attention-grabbing action in a new and hopefully entertaining way. The messianic power fantasy at its heart merely provides a different palate with which to work. Beneath the pseudo-religious undertones and the boomingly ludicrous dialogue, there's a big kid grinning from ear to ear.

And if big kids are your thing, you can hardly do better than Diesel. A star with more charisma than range, he's brought a surprising amount of gusto to the mantle of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, providing steely resolve and skull-cracking moves at a discount price. His intergalactic badass Richard B. Riddick put Pitch Black over the top, and his affection for the character is easy to share. He doesn't say much -- or indeed emote much -- but he has an overwhelming physical presence and a sense of cool-infused menace that goes a long way. You can't take your eyes off him; he commands attention even when he's strapped to the bulkhead, and all he needs to justify our interest is a legion of faceless mooks to destroy.

The Chronicles of Riddick provides them in the form of the Necromongers -- zombie converts to a standard-issue Imperious Villain (Colm Feore) with designs on subjugating the entire universe. So huge and scary are they that the Powers That Be decide only Riddick can take them on (he's the last member of a dying race, or something). The scenario plays into the shift from Pitch Black's situation-based dynamics to a full-bore star vehicle. Riddick survives the changes pretty well, and Twohy surrounds him with enough interesting gimmicks to keep us abuzz. The expected devotion to set design, costumes, and effects is evident, but the way they've been invested with energy isn't -- that extra little twinkle that pulls us into their grasp. The universe on display is well-conceived and fun, full of engaging facets that translate well into humming action scenes. The best involves a prison world named Crematoria, whose sunrises herald a 1,000-degree shift in temperature. Twohy reverses Pitch Black's ominous twilight with an equally ominous dawn, and like that earlier film's planet, conveys a sense of the alien unseen in most genre pictures. The shtick also makes for a great set piece which, while a little shaky in the science department, is typical of Riddick's solid roller-coaster credentials.

Beneath that, of course, it's all poppycock. Feore and his fellow Necromongers spout oodles of pseudo-mystical garbage, which the screenplay delivers with undue gravitas. Riddick's status as a man of destiny is overplayed as well, undermining his bad-boy charm with flashes of narcissism. The ending is gutsy and Thandie Newton's got a nifty Lady Macbeth thing going, but the filmmakers still take it too seriously for comfort. The minute you follow their example, you're doomed. On the other hand, can anyone really take a movie like this seriously? Twohy and Diesel care enough about the subject to curry our interest, and are light enough on their feet to ensure we stay with them. "Serious" is for another picture. The jittery bombast of its foundation comes almost as an afterthought; in this case, the devil really is in the details... and The Chronicles of Riddick rides them all the way to the bank.

Review published 06.12.2004.

* * *

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