There’s no reason Vin Diesel shouldn’t be a sci-fi action hero. He’s got the looks, the cut, and the badass gravitas — acting chops aren’t required. He’d make a better Batman than Affleck. But potential’s been Vin’s albatross ever since the turn of the millennium, when the best-Alien-ripoff-ever Pitch Black first introduced us to the Richard B. Riddick character. 2004’s Chronicles of same sequel perfectly captured the epic disappointment of the Bush Years, and he’s since been known for a guilty-pleasure gearhead franchise he only intermittently shows up for.
Nine years later, Vin stonewalled Universal into greenlighting a much cheaper Riddick trilogy finale, one which the star himself bankrolled until the banks went along. Diesel and writer/director David Twohy must be the last people alive who still believe this space opera can create a believable universe around itself. And while the third installment ditches the bloated Phantom Menace politics of Chronicles for a leaner, meaner machine, these two true believers still can’t let go of their pretensions long enough to inject the fun back in, even with a much smaller budget. Riddick arrives half dead on its feet.
Fortunately, its the first half. When our hero’s ride back to his homeworld turns into an attempted assassination instead, he’s left stranded — and so is the movie, spending a flat and interminable half-hour opening on our antihero and his cheaply constructed dingo companion hanging out and occasionally fighting off predators in the futuristic outback. It’s A Boy and His Dog, except the dog moves like he’s in a video game and the boy narrates endlessly like a coma survivor with delusions of grandeur.
However, one of those predators is an indigenous “mud monster,” whom Riddick eviscerates with a Springsteen knee slide, and when he realizes that swarms more of the venomous creepy crawlers are on their way to his new hangout, he sends out a distress signal. It’s answered by one team of mercenaries and one team of bounty hunters, so the action picks up considerably after that: snipers, hover cycles, that kind of thing. There’s even a Ripleyesque betty (Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff), but the film treats her like a female reporter in a men’s prison, raising the spectre of rape not once but twice. Twohy’s idea of negating that is to armor her with his tin ear for dialogue: “I don’t fuck guys. But occasionally I fuck ’em up.” Empowerment! As far as that goes, even Jordi Molla’s baddie gets nothing spicier than an instantly dated quip about “matchy matchy” outfits. Lucas at least tried to imagine bad small talk of the future.
Eventually Riddick finds himself back in chains yet again, and the franchise comes full circle. But what made Pitch Black stand out in the first place wasn’t just Vin’s menacing charisma but his spaghetti-western moral ambiguity; now that we know the man behind those steely eyes, the suspense is missing. Diesel saves the day (which is no spoiler), and gets away (ditto), but the familiarity and lack of new ideas are ultimately crippling, making this finale the Matrix Revolutions to its Matrix Reloaded. Too little, too late, in other words. And yet its modest budget of 38 million seems on track to be repaid, opening as it did on an empty post-Labor Day weekend where the only other option was a One Direction suckumentary. And Vin, survivor that he is, lives to brood another day.