Monday, September 16, 2013

Back To The Basics


Reviewed by Kemper
3 out of 5 stars.

Pitch Black was a clever low-budget sci-fi horror film released in 2000 that featured a group of survivors of a crashed spaceship fighting against alien monsters that could only operate in the dark.  It was a modest success thanks in no small part to the character of Richard B. Riddick as played by Vin Diesel.  Riddick was a self-proclaimed escaped convict and murderer that seemed as likely as to betray and kill the rest of the group as he was to help them fight the creatures.  As a dangerous anti-hero who got all the best lines, Diesel’s performance was the most entertaining part of the movie.

Then Diesel got fast and furious, and he capitalized on his rising star power to bring Riddick back in a big budget blockbuster called The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004 that was simply awful despite the involvement of Pitch Black director David Twohy.  Its biggest problem was that it gave in to the Hollywood notion that bigger is better.  So rather than coming up with a plot that could highlight the aspects that made Riddick such a nasty but fun bastard in the first film, Chronicles changed him to a mythic character who is trying to save the universe from a group of religious fanatics called Necromongers, and the messy story involved Riddick being the chosen one of a prophecy rather than just a murderer who liked messing with people’s heads.

Chronicles was one of those sequels that actually hurt the original movie because they rewrote Riddick’s history to be more epic and nearly ruined the character in the process.  In Pitch Black, Riddick casually disclosed that as a baby he’d been found in the dumpster of a liquor store with his umbilical cord wrapped his neck, and that he’d had his eyes surgically modified in a prison without lights so that he could see enemies in the blackness.  Chronicles claimed that Riddick was actually one of the few remaining members of a warrior race called Furyans that had special powers like seeing in the dark, and that he had either lied or didn’t remember his true origins.  Part of the appeal of Riddick in Pitch Black is that he had a bemused lack of faith in humanity and that works much better if he comes across as actually being part of the human race.

Plus, while Riddick in Pitch Black was obviously a very dangerous man as well as a capable fighter, he wasn’t portrayed as being invincible.  He could be beaten and captured by one trained bounty hunter.  The Chronicles of Riddick and his revamped origins remade him into a character of superhuman abilities rather than just a more realistic bad ass, and that made him a lot less interesting.

Chronicles flopped so it seemed like Riddick might fade away as one of those characters ruined by a bad sequel.   (It didn’t help that there was a studio push to retroactively change the name of Pitch Black to The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black.)  However, Vin Diesel still had faith in the character and agreed to a cameo appearance in the third Fast & Furious movie to get Universal to sell him the rights.  Riddick  carried on in a couple of video games and an animated movie.  Now with Diesel’s new F&F movies pulling in huge box office numbers worldwide, he got another shot at making a Riddick movie with Twohy by going back to its low-budget roots and doing it as independent production.

The new film is odd in that it’s almost three different movies.  The first act finds an injured Riddick stranded on a hostile alien world with dangerous creatures including ‘mud demons’ that seem like a cross between overgrown scorpions and alligators.  (To his credit, Twohy’s script doesn’t just ignore the Chronicles story and some resolution is given via flashbacks.)  Riddick struggles to survive alone with only a jackal-dog he adopts and raises for company.  Eventually he finds an empty survival station left by the mercs who make their living by hunting guys like him.

Riddick seems like he’d be content to stay by himself on this harsh planet, but an incoming storm is bringing hordes of the mud demons towards him.  With no other options, Riddick scans himself into the system of the station so that any mercs in the area will come after him for a big payday, and two ships show up.  One group of sloppy bounty hunters  is led by Santana (Jordi Molla) and the other is led by a no nonsense guy (Matt Nable) with a personal grudge against Riddick.

As the two groups of mercs squabble over who’ll bring him in, Riddick uses traps, sneakiness and psychological  warfare to thin their numbers and try to scare them into giving up and leaving him a ship  This phase of the story is the most entertaining with the bickering mercs getting increasingly freaked out, and Katee Sackhoff is a particularly fun character with a knack for punching people in the face.  It’s an interesting twist that by shifting the focus to the mercs, our hero starts to seem like the killer in a slasher horror flick.  Limiting the scenes that actually show Diesel during this part actually makes him seem more of a threat than anything in Chronicles did.

The third act reverts to the formula of Pitch Black with Riddick and the remaining mercs team up to try and survive the mud demons and get off the planet.    Sadly this ended up being the least interesting phase of the movie because it’s reverting back to a story that’s extremely similar to the first movie.

Taken as a whole, Riddick is a generally fun B-movie.  With its R rating for graphic violence, adult language and a shot of one of Katee Sackhoff boobs (For no reason other than to show one of Katee Sackhoff’s boobs.), it’s a refreshing change of pace from the milder efforts we usually get in these kinds of movies where sticking to PG-13 is the smarter marketing play.   It’s got some genuinely funny lines and a few gasp worthy scenes of gore.  That brings Riddick back to the place he started instead of trying to make him the hero of a giant space opera.  However, while this one did scale him back to more human proportions, there are still some elements of Riddick being a nearly unstoppable force of nature that makes him not quite as fun as he was the first time we saw him.

Plus, it leaned a little heavily on what worked in Pitch Black by having Riddick in an uneasy alliance with others against monsters.  It would have been a far more interesting movie if it stuck with the tone of the second act which involved Riddick trying to outwit a pack of bounty hunters who literally want to put his head in a box rather than watching Vin Diesel fight some averagely rendered CGI monsters.

Another Engrossing Novel from Jim Fusilli

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is another very entertaining novel from Jim Fusilli, the rock and pop music critic of the Wall Street Journal. As the book opens, we meet a nameless man, or really a man of many names, who is on the road, drifting across the country and through the remnants of his shattered life. His wife has been brutally murdered; his daughter refuses to speak to him. His needs are simple and he only wants to be left alone. But in the tiny mining town of Jerome, Arizona, he buys a drink for an attractive woman and is soon entangled in a web of murder and intrigue.

Leaving Arizona, the drifter makes his way to Memphis, trailed by the jealous boyfriend of the woman he bedded in Jerome. Once in Memphis, he falls for the charms of another attractive woman and soon finds himself framed for murder.

The only way for the drifter to clear his name is to track down the killer himself, but as he attempts to do so, he is being tracked himself by a Wall Street power broker who is manipulating events from a distance. The mogul has plans of his own for the drifter and is not above toying with the life of the drifter's estranged daughter in order to achieve his objective.

This is a taut, well-written story with a number of memorable characters. The drifter, who uses several different names through the course of the book, is an especially appealing protagonist. It takes a few chapters for the various threads of the novel to converge, but Fusilli weaves them together into a very engrossing story. Readers who have enjoyed his earlier work will certainly want to find this one.