Movies like “Riddick,” a satisfyingly primitive spectacle, help explain the unlikely ascendancy of Vin Diesel as a man of cinema. With his hypertrophied body and Barry White purr, Diesel — much like his more sweetly appealing brother in brawn, Dwayne Johnson — embodies a particularly salient caricature of masculinity, one that appears to transcend obvious racial identity to make him an ideal modern Everybrute. If Arnold and Sly became the cartoon emblems of Reagan-era might, Diesel has come into his own as a contemporary hero, one who suggests a postrace ideal, even as he affirms old-fashioned power with displays of annihilating violence.
This is the third live-action film in the “Riddick” series, which opened with the aptly grim and gloomy “Pitch Black” (2000), and immediately entered its decadent phase with the unintentionally self-parodic “Chronicles of Riddick” (2004). The series director and writer (sometimes co-writer), David Twohy, has smartly gone back to genre basics with this installment, which serves as an effective reboot. Gone are the silly costumes and wigs, the overstuffed plot and exotic-sounding villains like the Necromongers, the religious fanatics that Diesel’s character, the escaped convict more formally known as Richard B. Riddick, once battled. Now, there’s one man alone, stranded on a seemingly desolate distant planet with only his wits, his fists and his voice-over.
That voice-over is mercifully spare, the landscape atmospherically barren and the action nice and tight. If you didn’t see or can’t remember the previous movie, no matter, because, after a few pro forma nods to “Chronicles” (cue Karl Urban in eyeliner and leather shoulder pads), Twohy gets right to it. Riddick is wounded and seemingly down for the count.
“Don’t know how many times I’ve been crossed off the list and left for dead,” he growls.
Surrounded by craggy cliffs that evoke John Ford’s Monument Valley as reworked for the cover of a science-fiction pulp, he stares into the computer-generated void. Instead of vultures, dinosaurlike scavengers swoop down at his head; instead of wolves, he goes mano a mano with wittily conceptualized critters that look like juiced-up hyenas.
Riddick initially struggles just to survive, an elemental fight that has a nice metaphoric resonance for the series. It’s as if, having almost lost the character amid so much narrative bloat, Twohy were returning Riddick and the franchise to their origins, stripping them down to their genre bones. Riddick even undergoes a ritual purification, emerging from a pool of liquid like Martin Sheen’s psychotic warrior in “Apocalypse Now.”
Twohy’s reference to “Apocalypse Now” can be read as just another ceremonial nod at a cinematic touchstone, one that seeks to suggest affinity merely through quotation. Whatever Twohy’s intentions and no matter how aspirational the allusion, the image works because it telegraphs one simple idea: Riddick is reborn, y’all.
Of course to complete this rebirth, Riddick, the legendary interplanetary killer, must be baptized in blood. And blood there will be, along with something like a story when a ship with a dirtyish half-dozen bounty hunters lands on the planet. These mercenaries, led by a trash-talking braggart, Santana (an amusing Jordi MollC ), are soon joined by another crew, this one fronted by Boss Johns (Matt Nable) and including the sole woman, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff from “Battlestar Galactica”). Healed and steeled, Riddick, armed with a blade stuck in an enormous bone and flanked by a faithful pet with sharp teeth and hilarious moves, takes all of them on with and without his trademark goggles. The dust churns, the clouds gather, the bullets fly, the men fall.
The Diesel rises.