- - Thursday, September 5, 2013

“Riddick” is many things: a surprisingly solid sci-fi B-movie, a showcase for the limited but real talents of star Vin Diesel, a relatively bright note after a summer of disappointing genre films. But more than anything, it’s a lesson in the virtues of going small.

The trend in effects-driven blockbusters over the past few years has been toward the gargantuan: giant robots, giant ships, giant battles, giant destruction and, most of all, giant stakes. The risk with this approach is that the characters get lost in endless struggles to save the world, and the eternal bigness becomes monotonous. When everything’s giant, nothing is.

“Riddick” is an antidote to all that. The brawny space-adventurer’s third outing is a stripped-down, human-scale story about one guy fighting a couple of other guys. There are alien monsters, guns and bounty hunters. The primary goal for just about everyone involved is to stay alive.

That’s a marked and welcome departure from the last installment, 2004’s “Chronicles of Riddick,” a bloated big-budget space opera that attempted to saddle its title character with a Dungeons & Dragons manual’s worth of incomprehensible fantasy lore. And it’s a much-needed return to the sort of vicious, small-scale mayhem that made Riddick’s first appearance, 2000’s “Pitch Black,” such a blast.

“Riddick” references both of its predecessors, but it’s not necessary to remember all the details of the previous films. What’s important this time around is that Riddick (Vin Diesel) is left for dead on an unnamed planet. After reviving himself and taking on a handful of the local beasties, he makes his way to an empty bounty-hunter station and announces his presence.

Two ships full of gun-toting mercs respond to the call. They want Riddick. He wants a ship. A chest-bumping, bicep-flexing three-way showdown involving Riddick and the two troops of bounty hunters ensues.

Writer and director David Twohy’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of over-the-top macho cliches, but he knows his way around an action sequence, and how to build tension before the movie’s big, often spectacularly bloody reveals. “Riddick’s” single-planet action trades galactic scope for brutal efficiency and ratcheting suspense, and comes out better for it.

Mr. Twohy also knows who the star is, and gives Mr. Diesel every opportunity to stand out. Mr. Diesel isn’t the world’s most adept actor, but here he’s in his element. It’s not just that he looks the part of the intergalactic barbarian — bald and buff, with biceps the size of semitrailer axles — or speaks in a voice so low and gravelly it seems better suited to a volcano than a man. It’s the exquisite, mellow cool he brings to the character; he’s a casual, almost ironic, death dealer — a sci-fi hipster Conan.

None of the bounty hunters is nearly as interesting as Mr. Diesel’s Riddick, but Jordi Molla, Matt Nable and Katee Sackhoff all make suitably gruff foils. The original score by Graeme Revell is far more bombastic than necessary, blaring out obvious cues when it should be staying mum. And the familiar foghorn-strength alien roars improve little on the dinosaur bellows “Jurassic Park” perfected 20 years ago.

But these are minor complaints. The movie’s biggest strength is its relative smallness, in scope, scale and stakes. The best compliment I can pay “Riddick” is that it’s not an epic, and doesn’t try to be. Bigger is not always better.

★★★ 1/2

TITLE:Riddick”

CREDITS: Directed by David Twohy; written by Mr. Twohy, Oliver Butcher, and Stephen Cornwell

RATING: R for brief nudity, gore, violence, language

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes

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