Though I’d certainly like to, there’s no denying the pleasure of a movie like Riddick—a meat-and-potatoes sci-fi brawler that’s light on the kind of moral hand-wringing weighing down its contemporaries. After a summer of apocalyptic confrontations and destroyed worlds, Riddick‘s uncomplicated plot—a simple, man vs. monster narrative—is something of a breath of fresh air. There are problems—significant problems—as the film attempts to zoom out from its protagonist’s quest to survive a desolate, hostile planet, but if writer/director David Twohy and Vin Diesel’s stalled saga becomes the franchise the two have always envisioned, there’s just enough here to suggest Richard Riddick’s journey home as worthwhile of a few summers as the adventures of, say, Thor or Superman.
Largely without dialogue beyond a gruff Diesel voiceover, the first third of Riddick functions as one of the more compelling features of an otherwise dull summer. A king at the conclusion of The Chronicles of Riddick, Diesel’s titular one man army finds himself exiled on a planet that was barely discovered before its human occupants decided abandonment a better course of action. Beyond air and water, everything Riddick encounters is hostile. Dog-like creatures hunt him in packs, and worse creatures lurk in the shadows and muck, standing between the man and his sustenance. It’s an odd path for an action movie to take, but in its spare, brutal shorthand, Riddick lets the audience know that this is a film about the unequivicated power of masculinity.
Because the movie can’t be 90-minutes of Vin Diesel talking to a CGI dog, Riddick finds a mercenary outpost and pulls an emergency beacon. This hails two squads to descend upon the planet. One, a rag-tag bunch of ill-equipped thugs (led by Jordy Molla and seconded by Dave Bautista), is there merely to collect Riddick’s head in a box. The other is an incredibly professional, well-appointed outfit. Their leader, Boss Johns (Matthew Nable), doesn’t care much for the price on Riddick’s head—he wants to find out what happened to his son, last seen in Pitch Black. His lieutenant, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), is the group’s muscle. But, as is the theme of all Riddick movies, women aren’t taken seriously even when their machismo outpaces that of the men in the room. The leader of the two-bit mercenaries, head-box in hand, tells Dahl that he’s going to have sex with her. “I don’t fuck guys,” she snarls, busting the guy’s lip open with one solid shot.
This line serves two important purposes, neither of which have to do with Dahl defending herself from multiple attempted rapes. As a scuttling horde of beasts trap both mercenary teams and Riddick in the same room, it’s clear that for all his “head in a box!” bravado, Molla’s Santana character is a secondary threat at best, a villain to be laughed at and discarded when things get tense. And, as Sackhoff’s character is the one who so effectively neuters Santana, her declarative sets the character up as both a Strong Female Character in the pejorative sense—a real cool lady with guns and breasts!—and a sexual challenge for Riddick. Chained up and awaiting execution, Riddick laughs and tells the room the exact plot of the third act, including that he’s “going to go balls deep” in Dahl, but only after she asks because Riddick, killer or not, is at least willing to wait for consent.
As an unabashed fan of 1980s action movies, I’m willing to forgive a lot of Riddick‘s flaws in the name of bloody, mindless fun. Over a dozen men chase Riddick to the gates of hell for a piece of the bounty, yet none of them are developed much beyond the fact that they’re all bad asses, with Dahl’s woman warrior and some punk kid’s nervous preacher thrown in for variety, I guess. I didn’t expect nuance from the film, but I also didn’t expect it to have an understanding of sexuality cribbed from a sexually frustrated session of Dungeons & Dragons. Beyond her saying that she doesn’t fuck guys, there’s nothing in the film suggesting that Dahl wouldn’t. But in an action movie you tend to take people by their words, their wardrobe, and the size of their gun. She’s got the biggest of the bunch, and there’s no evidence from the others in her crew that she’s lying when she says, to a room full of dudes, that she doesn’t fuck guys. “I’m gonna go balls deep” is something a teenager says before rolling to score with a rescued princess, not the password required to flip a woman’s switch from gay to straight. There is no switch, and it’s strange to see a movie in 2013—the third installment in a series that’s featured progressive depictions of women before—wheel out this old, depressing trope in the name of adding one more notch to its alpha’s belt.
Almost as soon as Dahl is called out for and reassigned to her gender, she is put in the spaceship with the nervous kid and told to chill out while the men kill the aliens and recover the lost power cells necessary for everybody to escape. She does, and she fucks Riddick because he survives the night without being eaten alive. And though this is an R-rated film, replete with gore and cursing and breasts, Riddick can’t even do its characters a solid and show them enjoying or even engaging in sex. “Tell Dahl to keep it warm for me,” Riddick says, keeping it macho to the end. It’s a bitter coda to an otherwise uncomplicated, accomplished riff on monsters and mayhem. There’s potential here, especially if Sackhoff returns to a future installment and is given more to do than sit around waiting. But if Riddick is proof of anything, it’s that few things in a film are as frustrating as unrealized potential.
Riddick. With Vin Diesel (Riddick), Jordi Molla (Santana), Matthew Nable (Boss Johns), Katee Sackhoff (Dahl), and Dave Bautista (Diaz). Directed by David Twohy and produced by Diesel, Ted Field, and Samantha Vincent. Screenplay by Twohy, based on characters created by Jim Wheat and Ken Wheat.