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Published: Saturday, 6/12/2004

Movie review: The Chronicles of Riddick *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

As noted in the review for The Day After Tomorrow, a few years ago I witnessed the hero of The Mummy Returns one-up every previous movie action hero who'd ever outrun a hurtling fireball. A true movie-action-hero innovator, he simply outran the sunrise itself. Then Hidalgo gave us a Viggo who outran the wind. In Day After Tomorrow, characters outrun floods, and even the cold, which prowls Manhattan like Jaws with frostbite. I dumbly assumed that had to be the furthest Hollywood could take it; by now actors outrunning fireballs and rushing flood waters gets a big yawn from me. Yet here we have The Chronicles of Riddick.

In keeping with a movie whose imagination seems to be mashed-up and recycled from the contents of one filmmaker's very shallow DVD collection, Vin Diesel, this week's movie action sprinter, gets nothing too special to outrun - only the sun itself.

The man outruns the sun.

His gravelly voice is the sound of a jackhammer winding down, but somehow this guy, chrome domed and posturing the whole way, manages to move, by my estimate, at many thousands of miles per hour. Granted, he is on a planet where the sun is accompanied daily by an apocalyptic tidal wave of fire. So he's motivated. If nothing else, you'd want to remove yourself as quickly as possible too, before that cheesy computer-generated landscape evaporates into 1s and 0s and John Travolta, sporting his natty dreadlocks and platform boots from Battlefield Earth, swoops in to cry copyright infringement.

So who is this Riddick? And why does he think we actually care to see what he's chronicled?

A good question.

The Chronicles of Riddick is the sequel to Pitch Black, a clever little sci-fi B-picture from early 2000 that had the modest, uncomplicated tone of smart, trashy pulp fiction. The Chronicles of Riddick, meanwhile, is more like one of those six-inch-thick fantasy novels that reads as smoothly as a Dungeons and Dragons manual and, to judge many books by their bad covers, seems to derive its primary inspiration from the cover art of old Yes albums. Pitch Black was a thriller that just happened to be set in space, on a planet with no sunlight. The Chronicles of Riddick is a lumbering epic, weighed down by too much production design and too many vague pretensions.

Returning writer-director David Twohy is not well served by monster budgets. For one, he doesn't know what to do with that kind of money except lavish attention to the exotic curves of every knife and biker bar leather suit (cribbed from David Lynch's Dune, by the way). His previous efforts (including the nifty horror flick Below) got their value out of shadows and darkness. This one is Star Wars dragged through a gutter, appended with a discount Macbeth subplot, and fashioned with fight scenes cut together so quickly, with strobe lights going off the whole while, that all I can really say for sure is someone caught a haymaker.

What joins the two pictures is Riddick, a notorious escaped space convict played in both films by Diesel. Riddick, who bows to no man (we're told endlessly), wears little synchronized-swim goggles to shield his spooky eyes from the light, but more importantly to lend his character, well, a little character. Diesel has the name, physique, and speech patterns of Elmer Fudd on steroids, but he's selling himself short with these roles. A fine grunt in Saving Private Ryan and touching as the title voice in the animated Iron Giant, Diesel, ironically, strains to look menacing. The guy just tries too hard.

Riddick is sent to a prison planet where everyone wears cargo pants and plans to attack the Necromongers, basically Star Trek villains with a fundamentalist bent and chain mail. They're badly in need of downsizing. When destroying planets and brainwashing indigenous populations, they send hundreds of troops to round up three or four stragglers. They also have a problematic motto: You keep what you kill. In other words, if you're an action hero, kill the top bad guy, you've bought the whole evil organization. That top guy? Lord Marshal - a man with a name so hilarious and redundant only a good guy like Mel Brooks could take it seriously.



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