The unstoppable aura of Vin Diesel’s acting persona is actually pretty simple when you think about it: he’s remarkably good at playing a good guy who monologues like a bad guy.
In the Fast Saga, Diesel loves to tell people what he’s gonna do before he does it. And he loves to speak in a confident and dangerous, monosyllabic cadence. If Diesel’s characters were supervillains, you’d think this affectation was just over-confidence giving way to weakness. But because his best roles tend to be tough-talking heroes, Diesel’s list-making speeches are what makes him so reliably cool.
But the most sublime piece of Diesel art — containing his best telegraphing-what-he’s-gonna-do-before-he’s-gonna-do-it monologues — is the tragically underrated sci-fi action flick The Chronicles of Riddick. This 2004 banger is streaming for free right now, and it’s certainly worth a second, or perhaps, first look.
What is the movie about? Because there’s a good bet that at least 50 percent of readers haven’t seen it, I don’t think it’s really fair to tell too much. Let’s just put it this way. There’s a bunch of evil dudes called Necromongers, who are obsessed with finding a kind of undead part of outer space called the “UnderVerse.” Guess who is the only hope of stopping them? I’ll give you a clue: It’s the guy who at one point in the film lets one of his enemies know that “I’m going to kill you with my teacup.” (Spoiler alert dear reader, he does.)
But what makes The Chronicles of Riddick so delightful is how transparently derivative it is. In the early moments of the film, Riddick’s faux-noir voiceover tells us that he “just wanted to be left alone” because he hates everything about the “brightness” of “civilization.”
Riddick is like if Han Solo was played by Jason Moama. In early scenes of The Chronicles of Riddick, when the character has a bunch of hair and a big beard, you’ll honestly wonder if Moama didn’t study this performance when he was crafting his whole persona.
What makes The Chronicles of Riddick so bizarre is that it highlights a strange moment in science fiction cinema when nobody was making anything all that great. This movie came along and said, what if we just try “fun?”
Riddick was released one year before Revenge of the Sith and one year after The Matrix Revolutions. The most critically acclaimed sci-fi movie of 2004 was the indie-darling Primer —a complex time-travel movie that barely makes sense — while the “big” sci-fi movies were Will Smith’s I, Robot and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Out of all these, The Chronicles of Riddick is easily the most entertaining. It’s not the best science fiction film, but it’s more satisfying than Maxtrix Revolutions and makes more sense than Primer.
This is all a long-winded way of saying The Chronicles of Riddick holds up better now than it did in 2004, partly because in the intervening years we’ve all learned how to embrace Vin Diesel’s schtick. According to Dame Judi Dench, Diesel convinced her to star in the film (she plays a kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi figure named Aereon) by sending her a huge “bouquet of flowers that were so big they couldn’t fit up the stairs to my dressing room.”
At this point, Dench had already been James Bond’s boss since 1995’s GoldenEye, but there’s something about her interactions with Diesel in Riddick that predict her brilliant annoyed-boss chemistry with Daniel Craig, starting just two years later in Casino Royale. The Chronicles of Riddick needs Judi Dench to work just as badly as it needs Diesel. (Though, you also forgot that Thandiwe Newton was in this movie, didn’t you?)
In Fifty Shades Darker, a lot of critics had a good time with the idea that Christian Grey was rocking a poster for The Chronicles of Riddick in his old teenage bedroom. The joke was that Christian Grey was a creep because only creeps would like a movie like that. But, what everyone missed was the simple fact that for a lot of people The Chronicles of Riddick was simply one of the most memorable sci-fi movies of the early aughts.
On top of that, this was a period in which two sequels to The Fast and the Furious came out and Vin Diesel had nothing to do with either of them. That’s because, in the early aughts, we were briefly living in a time where Diesel was poised to become a sci-fi action star, rather than the car guy we think of now.
The Chronicles of Riddick isn’t the most thought-provoking or coherent science fiction film in all creation. Its aesthetic seems borrowed from The 5th Element or perhaps discount versions of concept art made for the 2000 TV movie version of Dune. And yet, within its generic sci-fi trappings, there’s something unique: Gritty space fantasy, with a heart.
Diesel’s Riddick might not be the warm and cuddly family man Dom Toretto, but if I had to choose a world in which I got more Fast movies or more Riddick movies, I’d choose the latter every time.
The Chronicles of Riddick is streaming for free on Peacock in the U.S.