"Somewhere along the way I lost a step… gotta find that animal side again."
Those words, croaked early in the film by Vin Diesel's titular antihero and bathed in metatextuality, sum up far more than the character's intentions. Riddick manages to salvage a franchise that faltered by adopting the strategy that A Good Day to Die Hard desperately required - a return to the primal basics of the original film in order to atone for its bloated and ill-conceived predecessor.
Gone is the overly lavish aesthetic and muddled plotting that blighted 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick. A pared down, 'cat and mouse' story set in one location is wisely adopted instead of pursuing some tedious mythology, harking back to the efficient sci-fi thriller Pitch Black, which first unleashed Richard B. Riddick to the masses in 2000.
Instantly recognisable with that bald bonce and distinctive glowing eyes that allow him to see in the dark, Riddick is marooned on a remote and dangerous planet when we first encounter him. With only a loyal dog-like creature to keep him company, the escaped convict manages to transmit a message into space to announce his location, triggering responses from two competing teams who land on the planet intent on capturing or killing him.
One group of mercenaries, led by Jordi Mollà's repellent Santana, is intent on leaving with Riddick's head in a box, for the fugitive is worth twice as much dead as he is alive. However, the team led by Boss Johns (Matt Nable) has a much different agenda. However, before long, they soon start to fear they may need the help of their target in order to survive.
Riddick manages to flit effortlessly between moments of humour and menace, with Vin Diesel at his best in the role that propelled him to stardom. On occasion, it does feel like we're watching an action movie 'star' pull off heroics rather than observing a morally ambiguous character, which wasn't the case for Pitch Black. That's why the movie soars when the narrative perspective shifts from Riddick after the opening half hour and he becomes the antagonist lurking in the background and stalking his prey rather than the protagonist.
In his 'bad guy' persona, toying with the men out to apprehend or kill him (some of whom are sympathetic and honourable), Diesel is electrifying. The verbal sparring and power-plays are fun to watch unfold and brimming with tension, for we know that even if he's shackled and surrounded by weapon-toting opponents, he still holds all the cards.
Along the way there's a cameo from Karl Urban, hair spiked up and looking uncannily like Gozer from Ghostbusters, as he briefly reprises his role of Vaako from The Chronicles of Riddick. Not that anyone can (or wants to) remember what happened in that unsatisfying misfire, the events of which are fortunately glossed over.
Attempts to align one of the supporting character's motivations with the events of Pitch Black are only partially successful, as certain parts of the dialogue effectively compel us to disengage us from the film we're watching in order to try to remember events from the original that don't really matter much anyway.
As Riddick's lone female supporting character Dahl, a member of Johns' group, Katee Sackhoff deserves much better material. Mesmerising as Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, here she tackles a role in which she's endlessly defined by her sexuality and objectified not just by the horny misogynists surrounding her, but by the gaze of those behind the camera too.
While intended as an empowered character, demonstrated by many depictions of her beating up men, the cleavage-flashing costumes worn, the baring of a boob (deep breaths, Starbuck lovers!) and the sexuality-driven dialogue only serve to relegate her to the ranks of token stock totty in a testosterone-drenched environment. "I don't f**k guys," booms Dahl to her drooling colleagues. "Occasionally I f**k them up if they need it." Slaughter the Spice Girls for whatever cultural crime you want, but be glad they didn't adopt such a violence-driven approach to 'girl power'.
Riddick also suffers from a lack of clinical editing, with many action sequences overrunning and repetitive in nature. Consequently, the movie's stranglehold on your attention eases off on various occasions. Sometimes less is more.
Fortunately, there's enough to compensate for the failings, such as a firm contender for 'Best Cinematic Death of 2013'. It involves a foot, a sword and a transparent box. It's as incredulous as the infamous moment in Fast & Furious 6 in which VD defied the laws of physics to leap across the motorway to catch Michelle Rodriguez in mid-air and somehow land safely.
The creatures that inhabit the dangerous environment are well-designed and rendered, with one particular water-dwelling monster reminiscent of the snake-like root probes in the 1974 Doctor Who story 'Death to the Daleks'. Many of the land-dwelling critters evoke the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise, which is unsurprising given that Pitch Black started life as writer-director David Twohy's script submission for Alien 3 at a time when Sigourney Weaver was refusing to reprise her role as Ripley.
Wisely reigning in its scope to establish and execute a minimalistic premise, Riddick puts VD back to his infectious best, delivering enough visceral thrills, narrative tension and knowing chuckles to overcome occasionally languid pacing and a representation of women that belongs in an age so dark that not even Riddick can see it.