We first met Richard B. Riddick back in 2000 in an excellent little SF action movie, Pitch Black. He was introduced to us as a ruthless killer and the most badass criminal alive. But he was a lot more than that. Riddick was a man who through intelligence and sheer force of will had made himself into as dangerous a human being as ever stomped across the screen.
By the end of the third film, The Chronicles of Riddick, he'd been transformed from a smart and resourceful human into a kind of two-fisted Neo, a planet-hopping ubermensch incarnation of The One. But no matter how much bigger, badder and more bulletproof writer-director David Twohy tried to make him, by the end of Chronicles Riddick was a lot less than when he'd simply been a man.
The three disc Riddick Collection contains Blu-Ray discs of Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick, along with a DVD of Dark Fury. Unfortunately, the two live action films have been compressed so that the theatrical and director's cuts can fit on a single disc. The details are intact but there are noticeable artifacts in the dark areas of most scenes. Ironically, the Dark Fury DVD looks better than either of the two Blu-Rays. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't follow Riddick's journey.
In Pitch Black Riddick is being transported to prison by Johns, a bounty hunter masquerading as a cop. Riddick isn't just in cuffed in his compartment, he's blindfolded, shackled and has a metal bit locked in his mouth. He looks like part heavy SM bottom and part Hannibal Lecter. What better introduction could a character want?
The ship goes off course during a meteor storm and crashes on a planet that makes Death Valley look like Christmas weekend at Disneyland. The situation is desperate enough that Johns releases Riddick to help salvage what they can and figure a way off the planet.
The survivors soon discover the remnants of a deserted mining operation and better yet Carolyn, the pilot of the crashed ship, finds a small ship that can get them off the planet and back into space. Of course in any good action movie finding a way out means that things are about to go from bad to shitstorm.
They're not alone on the planet. During long-term eclipses the planet's dominant species, a kind of cross between Giger's Alien and crank-fueled hammerhead sharks, emerge from underground to kill, eat and generally fuck up every living thing on the surface. And it's just about feeding time.
As the creatures pick off the survivors Riddick, who can see in the dark with his surgically altered eyes, becomes the de facto leader of the group, urging the others to keep going and move faster. In almost anyone else this would seem heroic. With Riddick we're never certain.
Since his release he's has been sizing everyone around him, particularly pilot Carolyn and Jack, an adolescent boy who's fallen into severe hero-worship with him. Has Riddick bonded in some way with some of the other survivors or is he just using them as moinster bait so he'll have a better chance of getting to the escape ship?
It's while getting supplies to the ship that a few cracks begin to appear in Riddick's predatory facade. Jack is traveling alone, scared and in way over his head. It's not hard to imagine Riddick seeing a younger version of himself in Jack. What really throws Riddick off balance however is that he's finally found things worse than himself and not just the creatures. Johns is the only other trained fighter on the planet and he's as tough and ruthless as Riddick. The bounty hunter wants to kill the other survivors and steal the escape ship. Johns will do the rest if Riddick will murder Jack, who by now we've learned is a girl masquerading as a boy. The offer triggers something inside Riddick. Even monsters have limits and when Johns so casually sizes him up as a child-killer it gets to him.
Riddick toys with another character's moral code toward the end of the movie when Carolyn, who killed dozens of passengers by dumping their compartments to save the ship during the crash, asks Riddick to help save the last two survivors, Jack and an Imam on Hajj. Riddick knows that Carolyn wants to survive as much as he does so his challenge to her is simple. He asks, "Would you die for them?" When Carolyn says yes, he agrees to go with her, but not as a hero. More like someone who has money down on a bet on a prize fight and wants to be there to see the knockout punch.
Carolyn not only beats Riddick at his own game but she goes on to do the unthinkable. She saves Riddick's life, shattering his worldview so thoroughly that it's like a bullet to the brain. By the time he blasts off with Jack and the Imam the old Riddick is dead, not murdered by the monsters he's been fighting all his life but by a shocking act of human decency.
The constant tension between Riddick's killer instincts and the core of decency he hides so well is what makes him such a compelling character in Pitch Black. He's not a pure bad guy but he's incapable of being a good guy. What defines him is that when he occasionally decides to help someone he's as ruthless and driven as he is when he's sticking a knife in an oppenent's back.
The second movie in the series, Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury, is an animated short that bridges the first and third movies. The good news is that the character design and animation is by Aeon Flux's Peter Chung. The bad news is that Dark Fury is a paragraph worth of story stretched out to 45 minutes.
In Dark Fury, Chillingsworth, a psychotic space faring Mata Hari captures the escape ship from from Pitch Black. She collects killers as art pieces and, of course, she wants to add Riddick to her collection. And that's pretty much all there is. Chillingsworth wants Riddick and he wants to take Jack and the Imam and get the hell out of there.
There's only one significant moment in Dark Fury but it's a big one. When Riddick looks as if he's about to be done in by Chillingsworth, Jack grabs a guard's gun and kills her. Jack has finally gotten what she wanted all along-to become a killer, just like her hero.
The end of the film has Riddick dropping the Imam and Jack off on the planet New Mecca. He's going to take off and get as far away from Jack as he can before she has a chance to turn into him completely. Another act of compassion toward both the young girl and possibly a projection of his younger self.
Though Dark Fury is thin compared to Pitch Black they both work because they continually play Riddick's killer and human instincts against each other. In Dark Fury the stakes are raised even higher because this time the monster Riddick is saving the others from is himself. By running off to the far ragged edge of civilization, he sacrifices himself to save Jack. Unfortunately in the third film, The Chronicles of Riddick, the internal tension that propellled him through the first two movies gets jettisoned for the sake of spectacle.
The Chronicles of Riddick is a good example of an old film maxim: Beware of any movie with "Chronicles of" in the title. It's a sign that it's taking itself way too seriously and at some point is going to go all mythic on you. The Chronicles of Riddick does both.
The movie is a complete mess. It leaps from place to place, story to story and idea to idea without ever stopping to breathe or consider just what the hell is going on or what any of it means. If the movie feels like three movies that's because it is. The Chronicles of Riddick was supposed to be a trilogy, but when the money didn't come through director Twohy reworked the story into one movie. Bad idea. Imagine Lord of the Rings compressed into a little over two hours.
The movie opens with Riddick being pursued by Toombs, a bounty hunter introduced in Dark Fury. Riddick ends up stealing Toombs' ship and heading for New Mecca reasoning that the Imam must have sent the hunter since he's the only who knows where he is. The Imam's planet is being invaded by Necromongers, a kind industrial goth death cult that wanders the universe killing and reviving its converts so that they can they can follow the yellow brick road to a mysterious post-life paradise called the Underverse. I'm not sure if I'd want to spend eternity someplace that sounds like a Skinny Puppy side project and the residents of New Mecca are sure they don't. The Imam hopes that Riddick can figure out how stop a planet-killing space armada. It's an intriguing problem. However, before he can do much about it, Riddick is recaptured by Toombs and dragged off to space jail. So much for the alien invasion.
Toombs takes Riddick to Crematoria, a prison planet whose surface can rise to 700 degrees in a few minutes. Dumped into the bowels of the underground calaboose Riddick meets the usual assortment of creeps and cons that inhabit every prison movie. He also meets a young woman seemingly as agile and predatory as he is. He recognizes her almost immediately as the grown-up Jack, now going by the name of Kyra. She ran away and went looking for Riddick after he ditched her and very bad things happened to her along the way. She ended up on a slave ship and to survive she learned to fight and kill, transforming herself into a mini-Riddick. Not surprisingly, it's an uncomfortable reunion. Kyra hates Riddick for abandoning her, but loves him as her idealized mentor and protector. He feels partly responsible for her screwed up life but knows that getting off Crematoria is more important than couples therapy.
When Riddick sees a chance for escape he makes it clear he's not stopping or slowing for anyone. This is as much for Kyra's benefit as his. She's beyond babysitting and would be insulted if he tried. She's right behind him all the way. However, when she gets trapped on a cliff face by the rising heat Riddick doesn't hesitate to save her. He covers himself in water, swings down on a rope and plucks her off the cliff just before she fries. When they're safe Kyra looks up and sees Riddick standing over her, steam rising from his body. He looks like a sad earthbound deity, half devil and half angel. And that's the problem with the whole movie.
From the very first frame of the director's cut of Chronicles of Riddick we're told that he's destined for some kind of superhuman cosmic quest. A hot hippie Earth Mother spirit in a mini skirt marks his chest with a strange, glowing handprint and Riddick is magically made into the avenging angel of the Furia, his home planet, which the Necromongers wiped them out when Riddick was born.
Riddick doesn't just fight soldiers in Chronicles. He fights a whole roomful at a time and wipes them out in seconds. He breaks into any building he likes. He can fly better than trained combat pilots. And he can turn a wild animal into a pussycat just by staring at it with his surgically enhanced eyes. Riddick the human of the first two movies is long gone. Hail Riddick the Chosen One, with his glowy handprint and mystical destiny.
His final confrontation with the Lord Marshal, the leader of the Necromongers, is the kind of over-the-top punch out we've seen in dozens of superhero movies. It's only memorable because of how the Lord Marshal tries to break Riddick's spirit. He gives him Kyra, who's gone through yet another transformation.Thinking that Riddick had died on Crematoria and with nowhere else to go Kyra became a Necromonger. The worst thing has finally happened. Over the course of the three movies Riddick has watched Jack/Kyra go from an innocent adolescent to a killer like him. Now there's nothing left of her but a talking corpse.
When the fight with the Lord Marshal is over and Riddick has won-was there ever any doubt that he would? -Riddick slumps exhausted onto the Lord Marshal's throne. Kyra was killed completely when she tried to help Riddick during the fight and for the first time, he doesn't try to hide his emotions. Carolyn cracked him open in Pitch Black and Kyra finishes off the old Riddick in Chronicles. The last image of the movie is very effective. By Necromonger law when he killed the Lord Riddick became their ruler of. He sits on the throne, exhausted and shocked, as an entire army bows down before him.
For all its predictability, the last fifteen minutes of the movie work well. It's just too bad that the previous two hours have been such a loud and formless mess. The main thing that makes the movie watchable is Vin Diesel. As vicious as Riddick can be, Diesel always plays him as smart and with a dark sense of humor. The power of his presence and a handful of beautiful images and action sequences makes The Chronicles of Riddick a fascinating failure, more in the tradition of David Lynch's Dune than in the complete flaming train wreck movie Hall of Fame where Battlefield Earth still reigns.
Apparently, David Twohy and Vin Diesel are developing a new Riddick movie. It will be interesting to see where they take the character now that all the connections that have pulled him through the previous three films are gone. Twohy and Diesel are talented guys and there's still a lot of potential in Riddick as a character. Whatever they're planning, I hope they bring Riddick down off Mount Olympus and let him walk the same dirty streets as the rest of humanity. It's where he belongs.