Tuesday, February 09, 2016

There are Badasses and Then There are Legendary Badasses. Thank You, Riddick, for this Bounty We are About to Receive.

Out of all of the badasses that have ever appeared on film, Richard B. Riddick is certainly one of the most resilient. This guy takes a licking like nobody's business, but refuses to give up no matter how ridiculously and outlandishly the odds seem to be against him. And with director David Twohy, you can bet your hover bike that the odds, like everything else in his films, will almost certainly be ridiculous and outlandish. Riddick is a walking contradiction of sorts, because when he puts his mind--and his pecs-- to it, he seems like an unstoppable force of nature, but somehow he always seems to find himself in trouble all the way up to his gloriously bald, badass head that you could probably bend sheet metal on if that was the sort of thing that floated your boat.

In that way, Riddick is a lot like Rocky, in that they're both established as champions yet always seem to be the underdog in their own narratives. The Rocky series went through great lengths with each installment to knock its titular pugilist down enough pegs so that he was forced to crawl his way back to the top, and Riddick, it seems, is no different. His third time out, now simply titled Riddick, sees the escaped convict and murderer turned leader of an intergalactic death cult stranded on a random planet fighting for survival against alien dogs, alien giant scorpions, and (technically) alien bounty hunters.

After the balls-to-the-wall insanity that was Chronicles of Riddick, Twohy and star Vin Diesel have taken a back-to-basics approach with Riddick, which means that while the walls may be ball-free, there are definitely some upwardly mobile testicles in play. Yet again, this eerily mirrors the Alien franchise, as Riddick is like Alien 3, insofar as that it seeks to find its footing by capitalizing on what drew fans in to the series in the first place and not in the sense that it was better than people seemed to remember but still nowhere near as great as it could have been even with David Fincher at the helm. (Fucking Alien 3. Why do you make it so hard to love you?)

In keeping with the back-to-basics approach, Riddick once again finds himself stranded on a random planet infested with swarms of deadly alien creatures much as he did in Pitch Black. Only now the alien creatures love water and not the dark. Totally different, but like the same. As George Lucas might say, it rhymes. It's like poetry. Bloody poetry filled to the brim with violence, gore, sexual content, and course language. So, in many respects, a lot like Shakespeare. (In fact, I heard that the original title for Riddick was Much Ado About Ass-Kicking.) Also like in Pitch Black, Riddick has to contend with his human cohorts who, in this case just to up the odds, are all mercenaries and bounty hunters instead of just the one he had to contend with in the first movie. This includes Boss Johns (Matt Nable), the father of the mercenary Johns from Pitch Black, who wants some answers about what happened to his son. It's admittedly kind of awkward when he finds out that his son was a drug-addicted sadist willing to sacrifice small children to save his own skin, but he handles the revelation well in the end. And Katee Sackhoff was there too, which was an added bonus as I'm working through Battlestar Galactica and Starbuck has turned out to be my favourite character so far (for a lot of reasons, including, yes, extreme hotness).

Call me Starbuck one more time. I dare you. I
double dare you, motherfrakker... 
Riddick can quite easily be broken down into three distinct phases or movements: survival, horror, and action. The movie starts off showing the fallout from the previous film, Chronicles of Riddick, in which Riddick kind of accidentally killed himself all the way up the corporate ladder to find himself as the leader (AKA Lord Marshall) of the Necromongers, that loveable death cult killing its way to the the edge of the universe to find "transcendence" or, if that's not available, some other pile of shit that Johnny Depp has headlined in recent years (of which there are, unfortunately, many). Riddick quickly discovers that, basically, everybody he works with secretly--and sometimes not-so-secretly--hates him. So essentially, he's just like the rest of us in that regard. (Yeah, fuck you, Steve from accounting.)

Riddick doesn't make things any any easier on himself by not murdering and laying waste to civilizations, in direct contravention of everything the Necromongers believe. Seriously, just a genocide or two to get the guys in upper management off of his back. Instead, Riddick is desperately seeking out the location of his home world, I guess to build a memorial or grab something out of his bedroom that he forgot, because it's established in the last movie that his home planet of Furya was completely decimated and every last one of his people systematically slaughtered. Long story short, Riddick's obsession to find Furya is exploited by his enemies, who leave him stranded on "Not-Furya" with a broken leg, no weapons, and only one container of wax for that gloriously shiny bald head of his.

Riddick then must survive the alien dog/wolf creatures who immediately attack him and then the alien giant scorpions who block the mountainous passage that would lead him to greener pastures. So, instead of his usual opening monologue about how cryo-sleep shuts down all but the most primitive side of your brain, we're treated to an ongoing voice over for the first third of the movie when Riddick has no one else to talk to but the audience. And he does talk. A lot. But with a voice like twenty-year-old Scotch, I could honestly listen to that motherfucker talk about anything all day long.

It's during this first movement of the narrative that we're introduced to the central tension of the film, which is a continuation of a larger theme running throughout the entire film series. Early on, Riddick is trying to figure out how the hell he ended up in his current predicament, and he does some (arguably much-needed) soul-searching:

"There are bad days, and then there are legendary bad days. This was shaping up to be one of those. Whole damn planet wanted a piece of me. Can't stay in the open. Can't risk another attack. It's always the punch you don't see coming that puts you down. But why didn't I see it? But why didn't I see it? Of course they were gonna try and kill me. Death is what they do for a living. So the question ain't 'What happened?' The question is 'What happened to me?'"

The first thing of note about Riddick's appraisal of his situation is that, first and foremost, he blames himself. This is in line with Riddick's role as the anti-hero, the violent ex-con with a code of honour. Part of that code is accepting responsibility for one's own actions. (Another part is sleeping with a bunch of hot babes at the same time. I think I'm feeling a spiritual awakening...) Riddick could have easily focused his rage on the Necromongers, or the mercenaries and bounty hunters who had dogged him for so long, or even God herself, but he makes an honest effort to appraise his own culpability in his place in life. This is also in keeping with the rugged individualism that we tend to attribute to our idealized protagonists: a sense of agency that we can aspire to and hope for (however vainly). Even more interesting is the life lesson that he draws from his experiences:

"Somewhere along the way, I lost a step. I got sloppy. Dulled my own edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all... I got civilized."

There it is, the crux of the movie, of Riddick himself, and indeed all of us. Riddick literally sees himself as an animal, a predator. Based on his past experiences with civilized society as a convict and a wanted man, as well as near-constant betrayal and heartbreak, it's understandable that he'd associate civilization with complacency. Riddick's greatest tool--for good or (usually) ill--is violence, one of our most basic, primitive urges. To him, it's not only the source of his power, but the key to his survival. Civilization in Riddick's point of view is a sort of double-edged sword. It offers protection, but that protection in turn has the effect of lowering one's guard. Civilization is built on trust: trust that people will generally abide by a certain code of conduct based on social norms and systems of accountability. But the thing is that to trust is to risk the possibility of betrayal, which is just about a certainty at some point. From Riddick's perspective, then, civilization is the source of the one thing that he fears above all others: weakness. In his own mind he is a predator, a solitary hunter with no one to count on except himself, and any hint of vulnerability represents a potential death sentence.

"So now we zero the clock. Just me and this no-name world. Gotta find that animal side again."

How about a game of space-fetch?
The thing is, though, that Riddick's goal to reclaim his animal side is constantly juxtaposed throughout the rest of the film with his ties to civilization. In the first act, this is accomplished by showing Riddick's domestication of one of the alien dogs as a pet. Despite getting in touch with his own animal side, he seems intent on "civilizing" an actual wild animal that he develops a significant emotional connection with.

After Riddick finally makes it through the mountain range hedging him in and finds himself in greener pastures, he comes across a means of salvation in the form of a way station set up for wandering mercenaries and other such rambling men and women. He sends out a distress call clearly identifying himself knowing that there is an indefinite bounty on his head and that he will serve as bait too irresistible to pass up.

It's at this point that Riddick enters its second act, definitively getting back in touch with its horror roots, though with an interesting twist. The second phase of the movie sees two groups of bounty hunters trying their damnedest to take Riddick down, only to have them start to get picked off one by one by a faceless killer in the dead of night. Only, this time the night stalker is actually the protagonist of the film. This puts the viewer the the strange situation of having to empathize with the killer in a slasher flick. It's a lot like watching A Nightmare on Elm Street and hoping that Freddy Krueger finally kills all of those pesky innocent teens. It's also part Sopranos effect, where the viewer is made to see things from the point of view of a protagonist possessed of, shall we say, sometimes questionable moral fibre.

In a movie that few would describe as subtle (testosterone-infused, maybe), there's a pretty nuanced layer to Riddick's plans to escape the planet he was exiled to. It turns out that the only hope he has for his salvation lies in the very forces that would otherwise spell his damnation. More than that though, it's only because of the social structures, the very civilization that Riddick eschews, that he is able to be rescued. Without a system of crime and punishment, the bounty placed on his head, people working in shifts around the clock to claim that bounty, and yes, even the very spaceships that they travel on that are the result of centuries of technological advancement (or for David Twohy, one peyote-fuelled weekend), Riddick would have been stranded on that planet indefinitely.

Eventually, Riddick forces a confrontation with the two groups of mercenaries in order to broker some sort of deal to get off the planet without getting his head removed forcibly from the rest of his body and put in a transparent box. (So, probably not much worse than a typical weekend in Mexico City.) With tensions running high, things quickly go south, and Riddick ends up getting captured while his space-dog ends up getting murdered. Despite Riddick's goal of fully embracing his animal side, his survival depends upon a compromise between the primal and the civilized. And the very seed of civilization that he clung to, his pet space dog, is snuffed out by the mercenaries, the only other agents of civilization in the vicinity at the moment. Riddick trusted; he risked betrayal, and this time, his fears were proven justified. It turns out that civilization is not synonymous with order, but perhaps a structured chaos, like your nearest Costco on a Saturday morning.

Inconceivable doesn't even begin to describe
what's going on here.
The third act of Riddick, the action portion, pits the primal and the civilized against each other in a full-scale battle royale with cheese. Before the mercs have a chance to behead him, the shit hits the fan when, in another parallel with Pitch Black, the group is besieged by a legion of alien creatures intent on eating them whole then shitting out the bones. This time, though, the alien creatures--hordes of the space-scorpions Riddick had to deal with earlier in the film and to whose venom he spent a great deal of effort building up an immunity to--are heralded by the hard rain (no, not that Hard Rain, although it wasn't a portent of anything good either) instead of the dark. Now we see the flip side to civilization as the creatures embody what Riddick might describe as pure "animal side." They are primitive and violent, killing and devouring everything in their path. But they don't turn on each other. Even among animals, it seems, there is still a sort of order.

And this juxtaposition between the animal and civilized is really the core of the movie. After being released and promptly keeping his promise to kill Santana (Jordi MollĂ ), the leader of one of the mercenary groups, by kicking a machete across the room to bifurcate his fucking skull, Riddick is forced to once again try and cooperate with the surviving mercs in order to survive. And they, in turn, are forced to trust him. Riddick, Boss Johns, and Dave Bautista (because why not, I guess) ride out on crazy-ass hover bikes to recover the missing power cells that Riddick stole that are necessary to return full power to the merc spaceships and get them off this rock.

After some more shenanigans (oh, somebody's about to get pistol whipped), Dave Bautista ends up dead and Riddick is left alone, injured, and unarmed in the wilderness surrounded by the hordes of giant space-scorpions, while his only hope for salvation rests in the hands of Boss Johns, a man to whom he just revealed that his son was not only a giant asshole but that Riddick himself sent not-so-gently into that good night. And here, at the climax of the film, which David Twohy signals in a very literal sense as Riddick is forced into a fighting retreat towards the peak of a giant outcropping of rock, Riddick is saved by the very civilization he found so anathema earlier in the film. Boss Johns comes back for Riddick, and not only that, he saves him in the best way possible: straddled by Katee Sackhoff while being hoisted above a swarm of alien creatures being blasted to tiny bits by giant laser guns. (Incidentally, this is also the best possible way to die.)

So basically, Riddick is saved by the very man who has every reason to hate him and who has been tracking him for a decade just so he can get some answers about the fate of his son before killing and/or collecting the bounty on him (now double if he's brought in dead). And what's more, Boss Johns keeps his word and lets Riddick go with a ship of his very own.

Warriors... Come out to plaaaaay...
The final scene of the movie is Riddick returning to the Necromongers to settle his unfinished business, which probably includes finding his home planet of Furya and exacting some revenge, which in the Riddick-verse is a dish best served bald. There is significance in his return, though, besides setting up for the sequel (and TV show!). If his goal by the end of the film was still to fully embrace his "animal side," there would be no need to return. There's no real reason to seek out his home planet that would satisfy any of his primal urges or basic survival instincts. There no real benefit to sticking his neck out into the world again, revealing his presence to people who believe he is dead and who, if they believed otherwise, would do their damnedest to make sure that he was.

What we're left with by the end of the film is a Riddick who has sought not just to embrace his animal side, but to find a balance between the chaos and the order within himself. For Riddick, this is another step on the path to finding that balance between the animal and the civilized. For the rest of us, this might be representative of the tension between passion and complacency. Having a social structure and support system provides many benefits (and sometimes friends bearing said benefits), but that sort of contentment can also lead to stagnation. It's important not to lose that hunger and, conversely, to keep that spark burning. We don't have to go balls-nuts insane with primal fury to solve our problems, and it's probably in our own best interest most of the time not to. But sometimes--just sometimes--we need to let the beast out of the cage.


For some, Riddick may be a throwaway sci-fi actioner, but to the true believers, it is so much more. Even if I didn't love me some Riddick--and I do--I would still have mad respect for the passion that Twohy and Vin Diesel have for this character and story, with reports being that Diesel actually mortgaged his house to finance Riddick. As far as sci-fi goes, the tales of Riddick are practically a genre unto themselves, and I'm not sure what kind of alchemy these movies conjure, but I can't get enough. Riddick is a worthy addition to the series and a fine return to form. Final verdict: 9/10 = One Severed Head in a Clear Plastic Box for Safe Transportation to the Nearest Civilized System

Bonus Riddick-ism:

Consort: So what is the best way to a man's heart?

Riddick: Between the fourth and fifth rib. That's where I usually go. I'll put a twist at the end if I wanna make sure.

Fucking brilliant.

You can check out my reviews of Riddick's earlier adventures by following the links below.

Once You Go Pitch Black, You Never Go Back

Of Mercs and Men... Riddick Rides Again


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