Saturday, December 19, 2015

Of Mercs and Men... Riddick Rides Again

In another world, Pitch Black and the iconic character Riddick might have been relegated to the realm of the one-hit wonder, and the truly frightening thing is that world isn't that different from this one. Only through the sheer willpower of director David Twohy, Vin "Riddick" Diesel, and a ragtag group of dedicated fans and social miscreants were further exploits of the infamous "escaped convict and murderer" committed to film (as well as a few video games to boot). If anybody had told me when it first came out that Pitch Black would spawn three sequels (Next one is in development. Can I get a "Fuck yeah!?") I probably would have stabbed you to death with a teacup.

In a move that came as a surprise to exactly no one, Twohy doubled down on the insanity for Chronicles of Riddick, thrusting Riddick into an intergalactic space adventure dealing not only with mercenaries but also alien elementals, a technologically advanced death cult, and Karl Urban's bizarre yet completely entrancing haircut. It's like if Star Wars had been written and directed by an escaped lunatic high on acid and Luke had been written as a homicidal, shiny-eyed rogue with a heart of gold and also violence.

Just like Pitch Black, Chronicles of Riddick begins with an opening voice over (by Dame Judy fucking Dench no less) so ludicrous and over the top that it can't help but grab your brain by the balls a pull you along for the ride. And with an introduction like this, you're all but guaranteed that the ride is going to be a wild one:

"They are an army unlike any other... crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land--a constellation of dark new worlds. Necromongers, they're called. And if they cannot convert you, they will kill you. Leading them, the Lord Marshal. He alone has made a pilgrimage to the gates of the UnderVerse... and returned a different being. Stronger. Stranger. Half alive and half... something else. If we are to survive, a new balance must be found. In normal times, evil would be fought by good. But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil."

It's curious having Riddick described as "another kind of evil" as the film then proceeds to emphasize his character arc from Pitch Black by showing his the human connections he made to Imam (Keith David) and Jack/Kyra (Alexa Davalos). It's even revealed that Riddick has spent the last five years living in isolation on some weird totally-not-Hoth-like-in-any-legal-sense planet because he was still being chased by mercenaries ("mercs" in Riddick-speak) and bounty hunters and didn't want his only human connections to suffer any collateral damage. He even trusts Imam enough to tell him where he's going, an odd move for somebody with serious trust issues. In fact, based on the limited time we see Riddick dispense of a ship full of mercs on that icy not-Hoth planet (U.V.6 for the true Riddick enthusiast) it seems he's been living in complete isolation during this time, which means he's gone without a kill for that entire length of time, and his stats are way down.

I think "evil" is a little strong of a word, but I get the point that Judy Dench was trying to make. It's also probably the closest word that fits, as anybody would have a tough time accurately applying the adjectives "good" or "nice" or "caring" to Riddick. Though if we take evil to mean "that which is counterproductive to the functioning of a civilized society" then it might make more sense in the context of the film, though obviously fighting evil with evil is a lot more poetic, following the rhetorical structure of familiar such sayings such as "sometimes you have to fight fire with fire." In this case, Riddick's violence and aggression, when fully unleashed and not held back by his self-imposed code, would seem to be a match for the rampaging Necromongers, members of an intergalactic death cult destroying everything in their path on the way to the Underverse, a place that is probably just as insane as you are envisioning based on the name.

So much for your "bald" jokes, asshole.
Of course, to get to the Underverse, apparently you have to cross the threshold (Threshold! Take us to the threshold!) which is death supposedly, but you have to cross it while still alive, I guess? It's all kind of vague and awesome all at the same time. The Necromongers are led by the Lord Marshall, played with great relish by Colm Feore, who doesn't just chew the scenery, he fucking devours it. (Also, I had absolutely no idea until recently that Feore also played King Laufey, the leader of the frost giants in Thor.) As the only one to have successfully completed a pilgrimage to the Underverse, Lord Marshall has some kind of weird spirit powers that make him super strong and fast and apparently able to rip out people's souls, the existence of which Chronicles of Riddick apparently presupposes, or make it appear as though he is able to rip out people's souls. But he seems to be able to do this only as a parlor trick to convince a bunch of detainees to "replenish the ranks."

Aside from their shared gift of violence and destruction, Riddick and the Necromongers share one other significant trait: they both have a code. The Necromonger code is best summed up by their one overarching tenet: You keep what you kill. (As one would imagine, this makes for a rather interesting social structure and presents its own unique challenges.) Riddick's code is a bit more complex. Riddick is exceptionally talented at violence, a fact that he makes abundantly clear on numerous occasions. But he’s also bound by a code of honour, which, while ever-evolving, retains some constant components as the character develops. This code is useful in the narrative sense so that fans aren’t put into the awkward position of potentially having to root for a certified lunatic (like Dexter, only without the shitty lumberjack ending). Riddick’s code serves as an anchor for the audience to be able to establish the empathy needed to side with what Quentin Tarantino might describe (fairly accurately, I think, in Riddick's case) as "not so much a good guy as he is just a bad mother fucker."

Riddick's Code

1. Have a Code

Riddick doesn't display a lot of faith in or affection for humankind in general, but he seems to regard with particular disdain those with no discernible code of honour at all. In Riddick's sparkly, see-in-the-dark eyes, the lowest of the low are mercs, people who are guided purely by economic pursuits and nothing else. In that sense, Riddick might find himself in good company with Socrates and Plato, who vehemently opposed and decried the sophists, who charged money for their teachings, a scandal that gripped many an ancient Greek polis. In fact, had Socrates or Plato been subjected to the same environmental factors, they might have turned out exactly as Riddick did. Kind of makes you think.

Mercs, bounty hunters, soldiers of fortune, and all of their ilk stand anathema to Riddick's worldview (verseview?) in that their actions are not guided by principle but by cash. Riddick is a man of principle, though his principles seem to consist mostly of kicking ass, speaking in an intimidatingly low growl, killing people, and not giving a shit. Say what you will, but at least it's an ethos, dude.

2. Women and Children Last 

In Pitch Black when Johns (Cole Hauser) suggests that they kill Jack (played by Rhiana Griffith in that film), Riddick instead gets into a drop-down, no-holds-barred, testicle-slapping throw down to the death with him to save her life. As little compunction as Riddick seems to show to killing anybody who gets in his way, he seems to follow the old maritime code valuing the lives of women and children over men. Pitch Black also saw the solidification of this code when he decides not to escape the planet of horrifying alien monsters by himself and leaving a woman, a young girl, and a priest to die presumably gruesome deaths to save his own skin.
OK, here's the plan: we glower and flex as
hard as we can 
and make their heads
explode with the sheer 
of how badass we are.  
In Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick goes to great lengths to protect Jack/Kyra, killing a man with his teacup, and going head to head with the Lord Marshall, a ghost-man who he has virtually no chance against (except for the fact that he's fucking Riddick, murder-machine extraordinaire, and another in a long line of chosen ones foretold by prophecy). Though Riddick's presence in Imam's house might be taken as a de facto threat to his family when Riddick shows up after cleverly deducing the only person who might have been able to give away his whereabouts to troublesome mercs and telemarketers, he never actually makes a threatening move against either his wife or daughter. Though Riddick seems to have no qualms about killing, he doesn't kill indiscriminately. His victims typically stand between him and the wellbeing of himself or others.

3. Kick Ass and Forget About the Bubble Gum 

Riddick doesn't fight wars of attrition. Every time he comes at you, it's with the sole intent of ending the conflict as efficiently as possible, usually by making sure you never stand back up again. Riddick is the very embodiment of John's Mason's ideology from The Rock: You must never hesitate. (Read that last part out loud in your best Sean Connery voice. There ya go.) Riddick is nothing if not a man of action. He assesses a threat, and before most mortal men can react, he's already got his knife, I mean "personal grooming appliance," buried to the hilt just left of the spine, fourth lumbar down, the abdominal aorta. Take no shit and take no prisoners; that's the Riddick way. 

4. Always Repay a Debt 

Riddick doesn't seem to make friends that easily, so when Imam, one of basically two human beings he's ever shown to have any kind of bond with, is brutally murdered, you better believe that Riddick is going to repay that shit in kind. After the Necromongers' brutal and effective assault against the planet Helion Prime, they round up the few survivors for a fairly aggressive recruitment pitch which basically consists of "join us or die." Sometimes the simplest ways are the most effective.

Riddick, giving absolutely zero fucks, walks calmly into the midst of the proceedings to kill the Necromonger Irgun in revenge for Imam's death expecting just to be on his merry way afterwards because his "business" will have been concluded. Riddick is apparently a strong believer in individual accountability, going to great lengths to settle a personal debt. Fortunately for Riddick and unfortunately for everyone else, in the free market economy of ass kicking, it tends to be a seller's market.  

5. Never Underestimate the Power of a Good Monologue

A great monologue can buy you a lot of street cred. As much as Riddick is a man of action, he is also a man who relies a great deal on his reputation. So whenever there's a brief moment of reprieve in between all of the killing, pec flexing, and head waxing, he makes sure to reassert his badassness by giving detailed explanations, usually in as calm and as matter-of-fact a manner as possible, and preferably of horrible shit he's going to do to you because you pissed him off. Take, for example, the escape of the prison planet Crematoria, where Riddick is explaining to his fellow prisoners and a few mercs exactly what the fuck is going on in the wake of a Necromonger attack:

Riddick: Don't bother. Guards ain't there. They figured out the Necros are comin' for me. Plan was to clean the bank, ghost the mercs, break wide for the tunnel. And then somebody got a lucky shot off with this rocket launcher here... and took out the sled. Guards took off on foot but rigged the door so no one could follow. They'll take the one ship in the hangar and leave everyone else to die.

Toombs: How come you know all this shit? You weren't even here.

Riddick: 'Cause it was my plan.

That is some cold shit right there. Riddick basically explains how he he was planning to save himself (and Kyra, presumably) and leave everyone else to their collective fates. A monologue a day keeps the shivs away, as the old saying goes.

6. Respect Yourself

"I bow to no man." Pretty self-explanatory. Never trust a social institution or convention that puts you on your knees.

7. Confidence is Key

This kind of goes hand in hand with number six, but the real key to success isn't necessarily in what you do but in how you approach it. No matter what the odds are that he's up against, Riddick never lets it get to him. When he walks into a room, he walks with a purpose. He never does anything half-assed and never second guesses himself in the heat of the moment. He is supremely confident in his abilities, for example when talking about how he's going to escape the Necromongers early in the film: "I'm sure God has his tricks, but getting out of places no one else can, that's one of mine." Placing himself on the level of God, a god which in Pitch Black it's established that he believes in, is basically the epitome of confidence. It also helps that he can generally back that shit up by generally being the living embodiment of badassdom.

8. Educate Yourself

Riddick is a pretty brutish, animalistic guy, but he's no slouch in the brains department either. And though he makes an offhand comment about being educated in the penal system, he consistently displays an a high intellectual aptitude and excellent problem solving skills, even when under extremely stressful conditions. It's established that there's basically no prison in the known verse capable of holding Riddick for any significant amount of time, much like James Randi, except with more protein and joint dislocating. He's also an accomplished pilot and martial artist, obviously has advanced survival skills as evidenced by living in isolation on the not-Hoth ice planet for five years, and is shown time and again to be able to manipulate his opponents through fear, intimidation, and misdirection. In fact, even getting sent to prison on Crematoria is part of his plan to rescue Kyra. He often wins the day by manipulating people into completely underestimating him, despite him being right about shit a surprisingly high percentage of the time, especially about whether or not he's going to kill you.  

9. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

One of the overarching themes of Riddick's code is survival at all costs. Riddick's greatest ability, besides his ability to see in the dark which he uses to his advantage like once in Chronicles of Riddick, is his sheer will to live. Pretty much everything he does, from his monologuing to his ass-kicking to his manipulation and terror-mongering of whoever is holding him captive at this precise moment  is in greater service of his own survival. (He has a talent for escaping, but is generally pretty bad with the whole not-getting-caught-in-the-first-place thing, which probably would be a bummer for him, but he seems to have so much fun escaping shit that he probably doesn't even mind.) There are some people who would gladly lay down their lives in service of others, but Riddick is not one of those people. He may wind up helping you if your paths and goals happen to intersect at the moment (and you're not a merc or a Necromonger), but Riddick don't run no suicide missions. Death may be OK for your run-of-the-mill action hero, but Riddick will not stand for that shit.

So, as your wife I wife I'm going to
manipulate you to focus your ambition
to betray your friends and overthrow
the leadership of our people. What
could possibly go wrong? Who the fuck
is Macbeth?
Chronicles of Riddick is about the last place that I expected the Riddick franchise to be taken. In a weird parallel to the Alien series, Riddick went from sci-fi horror in his first outing, Pitch Black, to full-blown sci-fi action adventure in Chronicles of Riddick, much like the shift in narrative gears between Alien and Aliens. Plus, Twohy throws in some epic elements as well, including adding Riddick to the long list of Chosen Ones whose destiny it is to overcome some evil force threatening life as we know it.

Among Riddick's growing and eclectic mythology is the fact that he is one of the few surviving citizens of the planet Furya, whose population was decimated by the Necromongers when Riddick was still a baby. So Riddick has visions related to his past, and at one point releases a blast of energy knocking back several of his attackers in a fight, hinting at some kind of great power that Riddick might have access to (definitely not the Force). As is Twohy's modus operandi, we only get hints as to who or what the Furyans were, but I think it might be fair to assume that they might have been a furious people. There are also hints that, much like the Transformers, there seems to have been much more to them than meets the eye.

By the end of the movie, Riddick is able to pull a Postman on the Necromongers, killing their leader and using their own rules, in this case keeping what you kill, to assume rulership of their clan. (And lo, the Costner shall show them the way.) It's a wild ride for those willing to take it, but it does require a certain constitution to digest this particular brand of insanity.

On a mountain of skulls in a castle of pain I sat on a
throne of blood.
Everything about Chronicles of Riddick was just so in your face. All of the naming conventions were weirdly on the nose, yet awesome. Riddick is revealed to be a Furyan from the planet Furya. Which, I mean, fury is kind of Riddick's thing, you know? The prison planet, the surface of which when in direct sunlight is something like 700 degrees Fahrenheit, is named Crematoria. The name of the film's antagonists, the Necromongers, literally means "those who deal in death" combining necro, a prefix of Greek origin meaning "death," and monger, which "denotes a dealer or trader in a specified commodity." But of course most of you probably already knew that from your late-night Google searches of necrophilia and Iron Monger from the Iron Man movie. The air elemental is named Aereon, which is pronounced like "Air-eon." Helion Prime is ripped straight from Greek mythology as Helios is the personification of the sun. I mean, just about every name of a person, place, or thing in the movie is based on a completely ludicrous etymology that in any other context would be laughabl,e but in the Riddick-verse sound completely fucking awesome.
Twohy is clearly a madman savant. His deranged vision coupled with Diesel's endless enthusiasm for the character of Riddick has resulted in a rare find in Hollywood: something completely unique. Chronicles of Riddick is a beast that defies expectations: too twisted for mass consumption but too magnificent to be denied to the world. Chronicles of Riddick took us to the threshold; I have no doubt that Riddick is capable of seeing us through to the other side.

For its dedication to a path that few others would even dare to contemplate let alone follow, Chronicles of Riddick is an 8/10 = One Antihero's Head Hung in Weariness After Losing All Ties to Humanity Again.


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