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Planet of lost opportunity

In 'Chronicles of Riddick,' Vin Diesel grapples with risibility.

June 10, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

Lo! The warrior gathered his might and his muscles to journey into the heart of darkness, whereupon he discovered a race of men, Necromongers, who favor cruelty, form-fitting leather and hairstyles the Old Ones called mullets. The warrior had traveled into the darkness before, into that darkness known as "Pitch Black," where he had slain many and befriended a child, Jack, who should have been called Jacqueline. Now grown and known as Kyra, this maiden languishes on a penitentiary planet, where she battles demons and evil, and waits for the return of the hero while wearing totally cute cargo pants.

Will her hero-warrior return? You bet -- after all, there has to be a reason why Vin Diesel's name appears above the title of a Hollywood blowout. A modestly talented actor -- he voiced the robot in the wonderful animated feature "The Iron Giant" and bared a beating heart in films such as "Boiler Room" and "The Fast and the Furious" -- Diesel doesn't have the chops to carry anything heavier than a barbell. But he's a weirdly likable brute, a slab of humanity who's a provocative question mark of a man (admirably, he has refused to declare himself black, white or in between). The name of his company, One Race Productions, suggests he's something of an idealist. He may not be deep, this Diesel, but that may explain why he comes across as such a vividly modern hero.

Not, sad to say, a hero with taste. Not since John Travolta sprouted a head of dreadlocks and strapped on platform boots for "Battlefield Earth" has cinematic science fiction been such good-bad fun as in "The Chronicles of Riddick." A candidate for "Mystery Science Theater 3000"-style raillery and communal home-video perusal, the film features Diesel in a reprise of the titular character he introduced to better, less risible effect in "Pitch Black." Like that deep-space action flick, "Riddick" was directed by David Twohy, who generally squeezes B-movie atmosphere and shivers out of his material. (His writing credits include the nifty "Warlock" and "The Fugitive"; his directing credits are spottier, though the submarine chiller "Below" had its moments.) Judging by this new film, Twohy's talents are not served by larger budgets.

Weighted down with money, pretension and Diesel's tenuous importance -- and not enough story story story -- the follow-up to "Pitch Black" inverts nearly everything that made the first film an effective-enough shocker. Instead of mystery and shadow (the budget director's best friend) there are hilariously tacky outfits, sets that borrow liberally from David Lynch's "Dune" and action that borrows heavily from video games. There's Thandie Newton swanning around like a discount Lady Macbeth and Judi Dench slipping through scenes with a self-amused smile. (This dame knows what's going on.) There are new faces (Alexa Davalos as Kyra) and usual suspects (Colm Feore, Linus Roache, Keith David), and the less said about them the better. There are bad guys and good and, of course, our Diesel, a man for some seasons but, alas, not for all movies.


'The Chronicles of Riddick'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of violent action and some language

Times guidelines: Intense but generally not graphic violence; some adult language

Vin Diesel...Riddick

Thandie Newton...Dame Vaako

Karl Urban...Vaako

Colm Feore...Lord Marshal

Judi Dench...Aereon

Universal Pictures presents a Radar Pictures/One Race Films production, released by Universal Pictures. Writer-director David Twohy. Producers Scott Kroopf, Vin Diesel. Based on characters created by Jim and Ken Wheat. Director of photography Hugh Johnson. Production designer Holger Gross. Editors Martin Hunter, Dennis Virkler. Casting Anne McCarthy. Music Graeme Revell. Costume designers Ellen Mirojnick, Michael Dennison. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

In general release.

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