"Riddick," the fast-moving third science-fiction thriller starring walking boulder Vin Diesel as a wanted man with iridescent irises, struggles with a severe case of genre crisis.
Should it be a straightforward horror thriller like the first Riddick movie, 2000's "Pitch Black"?
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"Riddick"★ ★ ½
Starring: Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackoff
Directed by: David Twohy
Other: A Universal Pictures release. Rated R for language, nudity, violence. 119 minutes
Or should it be a slightly campy, self-aware comic romp that plays with its horror conventions, something like "Tremors"?
Director David Twohy, whose been with Diesel since the beginning, wants it both ways in "Riddick," an engaging motion picture almost funny enough to be a comedy, and almost suspenseful enough to be an action monster epic like James Cameron's "Aliens."
"Riddick" devotes its first 34 minutes to film noir conventions in which Diesel's basso profundo rasp narrates the story like a hard-boiled detective giving us the lowdown on his latest case gone bad.
"I don't know how many times I've been crossed off the list," Riddick growls, "and left for dead."
And so he has.
He opens the movie with his head ripped by open wounds and his compound fractured leg taunting us with exposed bones. Eek!
He appears to be half-dead, dumped on a sepiatone desert planet riddled with vicious scorpion/dinosaur creatures and zebra/wolf carnivores.
"There are bad days," Riddick's voice intones, "then there are legendary bad days ..." Any guess which one is happening now?
In due time, a helpful flashback brings us up to speed on what happened since we last saw Riddick in 2004's bloated and disappointing sequel "The Chronicles of Riddick."
His dastardly rival Vaako (Karl Urban) persuades Riddick to give up his crown as Lord Marshal of the Necromongers, promising to return him to his home planet Furya.
But Vaako tricks him by taking him to a planet Riddick calls "Not Furya." (See? I said this could be a comedy.)
Vaako leaves the dubious hero for dead at the bottom of a huge rock slide. But before you can say, "Alas, poor Riddick, I knew him well," the unkillable mobile tree trunk struggles back to life.
He even finds a baby zebra/wolf creature and turns it into a CGI pet watchdog. (But we all know what happens to cute supporting characters and adorable alien dogs in action movies, don't we?)
At the 35-minute mark, Twohy gives up on the film noir homage. He drops the first-person narration to concentrate on new visitors. Bounty hunters! (We know this because Riddick says it out loud. To nobody.)
The scraggly Santana (Jordi Molla) and his low-class henchmen arrive first, hoping to quickly kill Riddick and claim the bounty, doubled if he's brought in dead.
Later, higher-class bounty hunters arrive led by Boss Johns (Matt Nable), assisted by a crew -- including Katee Sackoff's lethal lesbian sniper -- wearing snappy uniforms purchased at Gladiators-R-Us.
He's not after Riddick for money, but to settle a personal vendetta 10 years in the making.
Twohy shifts gears again when "Riddick" becomes a reverse maniac movie, with the shadowy, barely seen hero laughing maniacally and inventively knocking off the increasingly frightened bounty hunters one-by-one.
Then there's that big storm abrewin' on the horizon, and when the rain comes, Twohy slams his movie into full "Pitch Black" mode by attempting to re-create its nerve-jangling creature attacks in total darkness.
"Riddick" adopts a cartoony approach to many of its action sequences, enabling Diesel's animated cinder block to experience pain and suffering with super strength and endurance, when some vulnerability would have been more humanizing.
(Diesel actually outdoes Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo 3" when it comes to laughably fast recovery from seemingly mortal wounds.)
Nonetheless, "Riddick" chugs along on Diesel's raw charisma. It's a popcorn movie that seldom takes itself seriously and never minds being Riddick-ulous.