One of the words I use frequently when describing things, particularly things I like, is “pulp,” and this summer, when I was at the San Diego Comic-Con, I found myself in a conversation with a reader who wasn’t sure what I meant by that. It was a reminder that just because I love something or use something as a reference, it’s not automatically something that everyone in my audience is going to understand or connect to, and I can’t just leave it like that. The point of using a specific term like that is to give you some context for something, and truth be told, “pulp” is something that really doesn’t occupy much of a space in modern pop culture. When I use that term to describe some pumped-up slice of 21st-century whiz bang, it’s sort of like listening to your granddad describe a “Super Mario Bros.” game by making references to Jack Benny’s radio show.
My love of pulp developed gradually, as I followed the things I love back through their cultural evolution to the place where they began. Growing up as a film fan who was shaped in some part by “Star Wars” and “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” it seemed inevitable that eventually I would find my way back to what was a huge, significant movement in pop fiction for a good chunk of the start of the 20th century. From the moment I first read one of the original “Doc Savage” stories, I was hooked. What I adore about pulp is the simplicity of it and the way it’s all about wringing variations out of a formula. Bad guys and good guys are painted in big broad strokes, essentially unchanging in their natures, and the conflicts they find themselves in are defined by very simple-to-understand stakes. If you’ve read one “Doc Savage” story, you could argue that you’ve read every “Doc Savage” story, but the pleasure comes in seeing what is done within that familiar framework each time.
If you were a fan of “Pitch Black,” the film that introduced the Riddick character, then I have a feeling you’ll enjoy “Riddick,” because writer/director David Twohy has taken the character back to that archetypical form in this one, and while it will definitely feel familiar, he’s played with the structure and the details enough to make this feel like a welcome return instead of a limp rehash. That difference is what makes me think Twohy is one of the best guys working right now at creating real pulp, something that goes beyond homage. The film that came between “Pitch Black” and “Riddick” was such a radical departure from what audiences might have reasonably expected that I’m not shocked it landed with a thud. I liked the attempt to open things up and create a much larger mythology, and when I moderated the panel for “Riddick” at Comic-Con, Vin Diesel talked about how they’ll return to some of those ideas if they make a fourth film. In order to get there, though, both Twohy and Diesel knew that they needed to return Riddick to what made audiences respond to him in the first place, and they appear to have pulled that off quite well with this film.
“Riddick” serves as a direct sequel to “Pitch Black” while nodding to the story elements that were introduced in “The Chronicles of Riddick.” The character was betrayed after the ending we saw in “Chronicles,” and he was left for dead on the surface of a hostile planet in the middle of nowhere. And when I say hostile, I mean everything on this planet seems to want to kill everything else on the planet. It is an ecosystem of death and violence, and while Riddick gets roughed up at first, it quickly becomes clear that this is an environment where he feels completely at home. There’s something daring in an age of pure formula to spend the first half-hour of a film with your main character alone except for the elements, essentially staging it as the world’s most brutal silent movie. Riddick tames what he can and kills the rest and quickly finds his place in the food chain, which leads to him sending a distress beacon that finally brings other human beings back into the picture. It’s at this point that the connection to “Pitch Black” is made, and we realize that Riddick’s sins catch up with him no matter where he goes in the universe.
By far, the other most interesting person in the film is Katee Sackhoff, playing a bounty hunter named Dahl, and she seems to have perfected playing badass characters who function in spite of their profound character flaws. She knows how to suggest just how emotionally bruised Dahl is without turning her into a whiner. When asses have to be kicked, she’s more than able to step up and match Riddick, death for death, but she wears her vulnerability closer to the surface than he does, and in the quiet moments, we can see that Dahl has her own issues with this life of violence. The two of them are in no way a romantic couple in the film, but the connection they forge is more interesting because it’s not based on sex. Instead, they recognize things in one another that they don’t see in others, one apex predator innately knowing another. There is a large cast of supporting character who seem to exist to give monsters something to eat or Riddick someone to punch in the face, but only Dahl and Riddick really register, which makes sense when you see where the film ends. Twohy has another element of pulp down cold, which is the constant need to seed the next story, to suggest the next chapter of things. There might never be a next movie, and it certainly doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but there are enough active threads left dangling here to give them plenty to do if they end up returning to the character again.
This is not a mega-budget movie, and one of the things I like a lot about it is the way they build a world on a budget, and Twohy definitely asked a lot of David Eggby, his cinematographer, Joe Nemec, his production designer, and Mokko Studio, the effects house tasked with creating an entire planet while keeping costs reasonable. Instead of pushing the budget to the breaking point, it looks like Twohy and his collaborators embraced the challenge. Riddick has a CG creature that he eventually domesticates that has more genuine personality than some flesh-and-blood actors I could name, and Twohy’s careful never to push things into the cute or the cartoonish. Diesel seems to have gradually figured out his strengths over the years, and when you look at the performer he’s been since he returned to the “Fast and Furious” series, you’re looking at a guy who has figured out exactly who he is on film and who is enjoying that persona enormously. Diesel is not a guy defined by his range as a performer, but then again, most of our movie stars aren’t. When you think of movie stars, you’re really talking about people who managed to create one larger-than-life character that they play in film after film. Tom Cruise is a very good actor, but he’s built his career by building “Tom Cruise” into a very specific persona that you can drop into all sorts of different films. Diesel embodies Riddick in the way he seems so single-minded about his goals. His characters are driven by simple needs and an absolute refusal to let anyone stand between him and whatever it is he wants.
“Riddick” moves fast, and there’s a very streamlined quality to the narrative. There’s no third-act twist to anticipate here. Riddick fights an entire planet. That’s pretty much it, and as such, I enjoyed it greatly. It feels like everyone involved knew exactly what film they wanted to make, and it came together in an enjoyably preposterous manner. As long as Twohy and Diesel want to keep making these bloody silly slices of pulp, I’ll happily keep watching. “Riddick” might not be the best film I’ve seen this year, but it’s among the most self-assured.
“Riddick” will kill everything on the planet starting Friday.