Thirteen years ago, the world was introduced to Richard B. Riddick in the 2000 sci-fi/horror film, Pitch Black. A lethal convict, Riddick (Vin Diesel) becomes stranded on an alien planet with his fellow prisoners when their transport ship crash lands. Faced with an oncoming celestial nightfall that brings with it innumerable nocturnal, flesh-eating creatures, Riddick is drawn into joining forces with his untrustworthy cohorts and their mercenary captors to try and survive the night. Under the able direction of David Twohy, Pitch Black wound up being the film it needed to be. Cool creatures, atmospheric tension and a memorable, cagey anti-hero from a planet called Fuyra, who can see in cave darkness.
The perceived popularity of Pitch Black led to the batshit-crazy, D&D 26th-level fighter/magic user, nerd indulgence that is 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick (sometimes referred to as the Chronicles of Ridiculous).
An Empire of Necromongers and Crusaders and fairy-like Elementals (Judi Dench, Skyfall) wage war with Riddick being the lynchpin to deciding the fate of the universe. It's hard not to love it, but it wasn't particularly successful, either -- at least in the sense of spawning an immediate sequel with a bigger budget and more creative freedom. Instead, it became a cable staple. Nine years later, you'd have to wonder who was clamoring for a new Riddick movie.
The Shades Make the Man. Riddick rides again in Riddick, a movie so phallic that its title has the word "dick" in it.
Well, Vin Diesel was.
After the events of Chronicles (spoiler: Riddick becomes the Lord Marshall of the Necromongers; if you have no idea what that means, doesn't matter), it turns out the fruits of success are never long-lived. Uncomfortable with the throne and expressing some homesickness for his long-missed Furya, Riddick brokers a deal with Commander Vaako (Karl Urban, Dredd) to cede the throne and return to his home world. Of course, Vaako screws him over, and after an assassination attempt on a nameless desert planet, Riddick is once again left stranded with nothing but his wits and brute strength to save him.
Gaining an indigenous protector dog, Riddick learns that more verdant lands lay beyond the desert, but the only passage is through a cave network guarded by weird, bipedal dick-shaped scorpion creatures that Riddick must defeat. Fortunately, they can't stray away from the small pools of water that they inhabit. Building a tolerance to their poisonous bites, Riddick eventually finds his way through, and soon discovers a mercenary outpost. When he sees the massive rainstorms in the distance, which give life to the monster schlongs, he activates an emergency beacon that will bring the bounty hunters coming -- because he's had bad days like this before.
I wanted to like Riddick a lot more than I did. Considering all the effort Diesel went through to will this franchise back into existence, going back to the well was probably the safest bet. This is not Chronicles, a film whose ambitious sense of scope outpaced its good ideas; but was so committed to crafting a new kind of space opera that it's hard not to get swept along in its geeky energy. Indeed Riddick barely pays lip service to the events of the last film. This is basically Pitch Black again, though closer to a space western this time. But it's still derivative, and not just of itself.
The opening sequence is a great example, where Riddick essentially becomes Conan the Barbarian. Hunted by "wolves" and near death in a nearly wordless first act, he stumbles into a sanctum that shows him what he needs to do next to survive and tests his strength, eventually giving him a new weapon. He even narrates the opening like Mako, though albeit in the third person. The layers of titular narcissism are almost as weird as the phallic imagery that permeates the film. From Diesel's baldness to doing battle with the walking shvanzes with a literal bone for a weapon, Riddick isn't subtle about its homoeroticism. I kind of loved all that.
But then, after clumsily working its way to the actual story, we find that once the mercs arrive, their leader, Boss Johns (Matt Nable, because Steve Railsback was sadly busy) is none other than the father of Johns, Riddick's nemesis from Pitch Black. Cue the rain and monsters that pick the characters off one by one. A few plot contrivances aside, there hasn't been a sequel this self-plagiarizing since Escape from L.A.
And, weirdly, I'm okay with it. There's nothing really here to hate. The film looks good -- over-obvious CG aside -- and while losing 20 minutes from the runtime would have helped Riddick immensely, it never really bores, either. The story by writer/director Towhy seems to have gotten chopped up by the aptly named screenwriter, Oliver Slaughter (with Stephen Cornwell), but it still has several cool (if telegraphed) moments. It's a mess of a film, considering how simple it really is and should be.
The cast are clearly all game, from Jordi Mollà (Bunraku) as the scenery-chewing bounty hunter Santana to Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) as the lesbian merc Dahl; whom the film's fucked up sexual politics deem is okay to try and rape because she can probably kick your ass anyway. MMA-star Dave Bautista and Bokeem Woodbine (Black Dynamite) fill out the memorable supporting roles. None of them feels particularly fleshed out, but they make for decent archetypes. The over-acting and tonal confusion mostly save the rote narrative from tedium.
But in the end, Riddick is entertaining (in spurts) and will likely enjoy an equally long life as its predecessors on lazy Saturday afternoons, when grabbing the remote is too much effort.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints
First, there's an immediately affecting tone to writer/director David Lowery's sophomore feature effort, Ain't Them Bodies Saints -- perhaps it's the engraved, nearly medieval text revealing that all of this happened, during some unknown time, in Texas. Then the opening scene tells us everything we need to know about Bob and Ruth (Casey Affleck and Mara Rooney), a scorching-hot Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple who learn they are about to be parents. Tender and volatile, her clear need to leave his life and his to need to keep her, living afoul of the law in a squatter's house; their attraction fuels the kind of love that lasts decades. The crazy ones never break up.
It's an expertly crafted sequence that immediately raises the stakes after a heist goes wrong, resulting in a wounded cop and dead accomplice. Bob gets arrested and sentenced to prison, vowing in letters to see Ruth and his unborn child. Three years and five escape attempts later, Bob breaks out, seemingly bent on getting home to his family.
But things have changed. Ruth is now living in a decent house thanks to Skerritt (Keith Carradine, Southern Comfort), her kind-of-uncle (I was never quite clear about that), who is watching over her and Sylvie, Ruth and Bob's nearly four year-old daughter. Ruth is being weirdly courted by the deputy, Patrick (Ben Foster, Rampart) who was shot during her arrest. And as word of Bob's escape spreads, both Patrick and a trio of hired killers, led by Bear (Charles Baker, Breaking Bad's Skinny Pete) is looking for some kind of payback -- while Ruth does what she can to reunite with Bob and introduce the very wanted man to the daughter he's never met.
Dear Wife, I Hope You Are Wearing the Apron I Bought You. Mara Rooney reads a letter (presumably one with bad grammar in it) from her jailed husband in Ain't Them Bodies Saints
Ain't Them Bodies Saints' narrative unspools with the cohesion of a play, drawing an audience deftly into the romance, desperation and futility of the circumstances with haste. There's not a frame of the film that doesn't drip with texture and atmosphere nor agile pacing, as the noose tightens -- testing friendships, perceptions of nobility and Bob's pure will against life itself. This is Malick with a sense of restraint and with the dramatic sensibilities of Mamet doing ruralcore. Whether or not that is an apt comparison, it's still a good thing.
Written and directed by Lowery, Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a stellar second feature, a lucid dream tale that feels like it could have really happened. There's something a little fantastical about it. I kept thinking of Sailor and Lulu from David Lynch's Wild at Heart for some reason, though not as insane. Casey Affleck's nearly trademark, adolescent Texas drawl as he narrates his love letters isn't a far cry from Nick Cage's whispered professions of fidelity to Laura Dern. But here, Lowery grounds the star-crossed proceedings in a naturalism that would mostly defy Lynch. The familiar dramatic tropes and thematic obscurity are hard to get annoyed with when there's clearly no bottleneck between Lowery's vision and his ability to realize it beautifully on screen.
Or being able to pick a great cast. Mara Rooney (The Social Network) is exceptional, letting every thought in Ruth's head play on her face with remarkable ease and detail. Ben Foster is reliably stalwart as Patrick, who has to balance his long-budding feelings for Ruth with his desire to uphold the law. Foster plays that with a vulnerability that makes the transition work. Nate Parker (Red hook Summer) turns in a fine performance as Bob's bar-owner friend, Sweetie, who seems eager to help but reluctant of the rewards. Carradine is perfect as Skerritt, stealing some of the film's most pivotal scenes. And though it seems like Affleck is playing Bob as an alter-ego of Lou Ford, he still fits perfectly in the world that David Lowery has created.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints, along with the recent films of Scott Cooper, Derek Cianfrance and Debra Granik with whom Lowery shares a seat, is a good argument for the existence of a new American New Wave.
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