review by David Hines
I'm not as big a fan of PITCH BLACK as many seem to be. The original film was okay, but nothing to drive me wild; it was a decent little movie with some good bits, vaulted into cult status by virtue of an excellent performance by Vin Diesel. Now Diesel's back as Richard B. Riddick -- murderer, thief, and all-around bad guy -- in a movie that sees Riddick saving the universe from guys who are rather worse. Not because Riddick has lofty humanitarian goals, or because he's vowed to thwart the villains' plans, but because the bad guys 1) have pissed him off and 2) are in his way.
Diesel is unquestionably a magnetic star, and his portrayal of Riddick remains unforgettable. He commands attention with his eyes, his posture, and especially his rumbling drawl of a voice. There's not a moment that the movie forgets Riddick's not a nice man, that he's dangerous. He's not just scary, but downright eerie: Diesel is a big guy, but unusually graceful; he's so fluid, so economical in his movements that you forget how big he is. He has muscles, but doesn't coast on them, and he's a gifted actor. Riddick is an amoral son of a bitch, but he is a compelling protagonist, the closest thing to a Robert E. Howard character that anybody's done since... well, since Howard, really.
But it's not a Robert E. Howard story, and that's where the movie fails to live up to its potential. Producer Diesel and director David Twohy make use of Diesel's star billing to get a big budget and everything that entails. TCOR has exotic locations, huge sets, impressive costuming, fabulously detailed props, effects shots out the wazoo, and enough extras to make Cecil B. De Mille mildly happy. The result is less satisfying than the shoestring PITCH BLACK, because it doesn't play to its main character's strengths. The escape from Crematoria is the best part of the movie -- and it gets less interesting when the Necromongers turn up, because Riddick fighting Necromongers is not nearly as interesting as Riddick having to deal with people. Riddick's amorality is the most fascinating aspect of his character; magnetic and fascinating as he might be, you absolutely cannot trust him. If they'd played up the humor of his fighting the Necromongers -- doing it pretty much by accident, as they keep crossing his path -- it might have worked a little better. But the movie holds back, and it comes off the worse for it. It's thunder and lightning, when it should be a knife in the back.
TCOR also suffers for its more fantastic elements. There is no reason for Judi Dench's elemental to flit in and out the way she does, or for the Necromongers' Lord Marshal to do his blurry ectoplasmic thing; it exists mainly to make excuses for dull effects shots of the sort we've seen a zillion times before. Prophecies? Shrug. PITCH BLACK was entertaining skiffy; TCOR goes to out-and-out epic space fantasy, which doesn't fit its protagonist.
The end, when Riddick kills the Lord Marshal of the Necromongers and, unwittingly, assumes the throne, is dramatically effective in terms of Riddick's reaction, but his ascension is not the outcome I'd expect for the man who kills the founder of a religion. If the Lord Marshal hadn't been the founder, if he'd killed somebody to get his own spot (say, at the beginning of the film, launching the Necromongers' drive to convert or destroy everyone), that'd be one thing. But he was, and he didn't. It doesn't help that he's a villain who could have won several times over if only he'd read the Evil Overlords Manual. (My favorite is when Riddick is immobilized, and the mind-readers realize he's Furian and thus a Real Threat; the Lord Marshal orders the soldiers to move in -- *and promptly turns off the immobilizing machine,* thus enabling Riddick to kill his way free. Points for sportsmanship, but minus several hundred for good thinking.)
TCOR is a movie that should have been better, but the move from interpersonal drama/action to epic space fantasy doesn't serve the franchise well, particularly as executed. It could have been done better. But there are very good moments scattered throughout, including Riddick's first appearance, the prison sequences, and the excellent ending shot. Diesel's posture, so confident and defiant throughout, breaks carefully at the end; he slumps in his throne in a shot that deliberately evokes Frazetta's famous paintings of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian -- Conan, who too became a king by his own hand.