A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend of mine who has been working at a large Hollywood studio. The conversation came around to closeted actors and actresses, and my friend repeated what another friend told her, “Vin Diesel? Oh, she a lady.” I laughed, not because it would be funny if Diesel were gay and closeted, but rather that he’s done something to lead to such a camp pronouncement. His screen persona is solidly and profoundly macho, complete with roided muscles and a deep voice that rarely utters any words with more the one syllable, and if it turned out that he was actually a big old queen, well that’s some good irony. Maybe he is a great actor, at least in one role: manly action star. Maybe that character, Mr. Manly Action Star, is a bad actor. Maybe he’s not only a terrible actor, but also a retrograde chauvinist. Maybe Mr. Manly Action Star is just an overcompensation for being a self-hating homosexual.
At least that would explain, in some sort of psychopathological way, why he plays such meatheads, and why – spoiler alert – he would produce a movie like Riddick that features one of the more appallingly misogynistic lesbians-on-film tropes: All that butch dyke needs is a good man. But none of that would explain why Diesel has been so obsessed with making movies about the intergalactic escaped convict bad-ass Richard Riddick, who he played in 2000’s Pitch Black, 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury (which was animated), and now 2013’s Riddick. The character is only barely three dimensional, and the movies have all been various degrees of bad and barely profitable.
Riddick takes place, it seems, a few years after the end of The Chronicles of Riddick. That movie, which cost over $100 million to make and bombed at the American box office, was an attempt at creating a foundation for a space opera franchise. The intricacies of the plot are too complex to go into here, but it involved forced religious conversion, fascism, colonialism, and cosmic destiny; somehow the producers managed to get Judi Dench and Thandie Newton to costar in this odd cross between Dune and a prison break movie. Odder still was that it was a sequel to Pitch Black, a low-budget, poorly made monsters-are-gonna-get-you movie that had no mythology or themes, just Vin Diesel grumbling and killing things. Anyway, at the end of Chronicles, Riddick has – spoiler alert – killed his way into becoming the leader of the evil empire known as the Necromongers.
At the beginning of Riddick, he has been deposed and left for dead on a desert planet not dissimilar for the one in Pitch Black. (There’s a lot of quoting Pitch Black in Riddick, to make those of us who’ve seen all three movies feel welcome.) The first third of the movie is a survival story, with Riddick setting his own broken bones, fighting monsters, and befriending CGI dogs. The second third is a cat-and-mouse game between him and the bounty hunters he calls from an abandoned mercenary station in hopes that he would be able to steal one of their ships. There are two groups there to find him, a vicious gang led by the cartoonishly evil Santana (Jordi Mollà) and a squadron of more professional mercenaries led by the father of a character in Pitch Black (Matt Noble) and featuring a tough blonde lesbian named Dahl (Katee Sackhoff, one of the stars of Battlestar Galactica), who for no good reason suddenly finds Riddick attractive in the last minutes of the movie. The final third of the film focuses on what happens when a massive rain storm wakens the planet’s monsters.
Saying that Riddick is somewhat better than both Pitch Black and The Chronicle of Riddick could be damning it with faint praise. But it is: much better (but still not fantastic) special effects, cleaner direction and editing, and slightly less ridiculously plotted. But Diesel is still Riddick, whose motivation is 95% survival, 4% helping the not-as-bad guys, and 1% questioning his place in the universe. Mr. Manly Action Hero’s acting is best when Riddick is yelling in pain or grinning at his enemies’ failure, but as an antihero he’s neither interesting nor evil enough to be captivating. And Mr. Manly Action Hero is certainly not actor enough to transform a weak character into something appealing. If Diesel is actually gay, I wouldn’t be thrilled; I’d rather be able to claim an impressive movie star, not a beefed up hack.
Written and Directed by John Twohy
Starring Vin Diesel, Matt Noble, and Katee Sackhoff
At your local multiplex