RIDDICK and THE ULTIMATE LIFE
A few weeks ago, before heading off to see Kick-Ass 2, a friend asked if I thought 2013 was, as he felt, the year of the completely unnecessary, unrequested sequel. As I had, by that point, already sat through The Smurfs 2, RED 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, The Last Exorcism: Part II, and Scary Movie V - to say nothing of The Hangover: Part III, Fast & Furious 6, and Grown Ups 2, all of which someone must have requested - I told him yes.
Had he asked the same question this past Friday, before my double-feature of Riddick and The Ultimate Life, I would have told him hell yes.
Back in 2004, it made perfect sense for there to be a sequel to 2000's Pitch Black, the impressively pungent and creepy Alien rip-off that featured a band of intergalactic explorers - including Vin Diesel with glow-in-the-dark eyeballs - battling a race of barely visible monsters with gnashing teeth and no patience for humans. What makes far less sense is for there to now be a follow-up to the follow-up, considering that 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick turned its burgeoning franchise into howling, space-opera camp, complete with a tortured (and torturous) mythology and gifted performers such as Thandie Newton and Judi Dench (!!!) uttering unspeakable dialogue in outfits suggesting a 23rd Century Dynasty.
Yet here we are with Riddick, and in his latest sci-fi thriller, writer/director David Twohy - who also helmed the first two installments - is at least wise enough to get the series back to its basics ... although "basic" is a term that could be applied to pretty much everything regarding the movie. Employing a moderately effective three-act structure, Twohy's outing finds Diesel's unkillable, titular bad-ass (1) struggling to survive on an unfamiliar planet populated by vicious alien beasts; (2) evading capture by soldiers and bounty hunters whose fees will be doubled if Riddick is returned dead; and (3) teaming up with his pursuers to escape the hostile landscape before they're gobbled up by shrieking serpents with thrashing tails and torso-sized fangs. It's a simple tale, and after the ludicrousness of the 2004 Riddick, I was certainly grateful for that. I would've been even more grateful if the 2013 Riddick displayed an iota of personality - or rather, personality not borrowed from other, more memorable movies.
It is, of course, silly to ask for personality from Vin Diesel, who's forged for himself rather shocking career longevity based on little more than his intimidating physique and his comically deep voice. (Does the man sing? If so, can someone get to work on his inevitable Barry White bio-pic?) But even though he looks naggingly uncomfortable during Riddick's first third, forced as he is to green-screen act opposite tacky-looking (if cleverly designed) digitized creatures in tackier-looking digitized settings, Diesel is by no means a serious blight on the film. He's actually even kind of fun during his threatening showdowns with Matt Nable, Jordi Mollà, and Katee Sackhoff, and there are certain instances - as when he promises to execute a captor with his own knife in a swift five seconds - when the man's macho bluster, delivered in that fathoms-deep rumble, amusingly upstages everything around him.
That's faint praise, however, given that the "everything" in question seems culled, if not outright stolen, from James Cameron's Aliens and any number of slimeballs-in-space epics - plus, during its opening half hour, a healthy sampling of Cast Away. (Unfortunately, the demise of Diesel's faithful alien dingo proves less moving than the loss of Tom Hanks' volleyball.) Twohy can stage a suspense scene admirably enough, and he has a gift for bursts of shockingly outré violence, such as the funny/gruesome moment that finds a head - or rather, half a head - landing in a strategically placed box. But in the end, there's too little that's satisfying about Riddick to merit its existence, at least beyond its studio's procurement of a few easy dollars before the real (and hopefully better) fall movies start landing.
Still, better this Pitch Black sequel than The Ultimate Life, a follow-up to the 2007 inspirational saga The Ultimate Gift, and a work of such aggressively cloying (if well-intentioned) sentimentality and corniness that it took all my willpower not to audibly groan, repeatedly, during my screening. This was not, I must stress, the general reaction among those with whom I saw the film, who cackled at the gentle humor and sniffled at the family-first moralizing and applauded the finale; had my two-hour cineplex experience ended with a group potluck and a spirited rendition of "God Bless America," I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised.
Yet while, at times, I truly do hate being so cynical about faith-based entertainments of The Ultimate Life's ilk, I can't pretend that I ever got on-board with this depressingly predictable and contrived extended flashback, one that shows how Gift's billionaire Red Stevens (James Garner, appearing in a 10-second cameo here) learned about Deeper Values after striking it rich - and ignoring his family - as a Texas oilman. Directed by Michael Landon Jr., which might tell you everything you need to know about what's in store here, this desperately sincere, determinedly phony drama would probably have been close-to-insufferable enough for me merely for its stiff performances and bum writing and laughable pileups of coincidences. (As a young ranch hand, Red forms a friendship/rivalry with a guy named Gus ... who just happens to be the initial boyfriend of Red's future wife ... and who, despite being in a different platoon, just happens to wind up with Red in the same Italian foxhole during World War II.) But while I should probably give this earnest endeavor a break, especially considering its obviously limited budget - every room, even in Red's supposedly luxurious domicile, looks bizarrely lacking in set dressing - even the most minor of details seem almost startlingly ill-considered. Watching The Ultimate Life, I was bothered that the teenage Red (Austin James) was a brunette who turned into a blond adult (Drew Waters) resembling Brad Pitt, neither of whom looked anything like James Garner. But when, during a diner scene set in 1941, a man walked to the counter, ordered a hamburger, and was told that his bill was $3.50, I'll admit it: I laughed out loud. Do you know what you could've actually purchased with that amount in 1941? Roughly 23 hamburgers. Or 14 tickets to more believable movies than this one.