Welcome to Days of Diesel, a limited SYFY WIRE series that will celebrate actor Vin Diesel's various, often baffling, but always entertaining cultural accomplishments as we look to the premiere of Bloodshot and the return of Dominic Toretto in Fast & Furious 9 this spring.
Vin Diesel has dominated several franchises. His most popular one is unarguably Fast & Furious, but the film series that best chronicles his career are the three Riddick movies. Each one comes out at a different time in his career, and each one highlights different aspects of his peak Diesel-ness. And despite their Rotten Tomatoes scores (not a fresh critics ranking among them), they are each enjoyable if you set your expectations right. And each Riddick film helped create the bicep-wielding, tank-top-wearing Vin Diesel we all know and love today.
THE VERY BEGINNING: PITCH BLACK (2000)
In which Vin Diesel dons the persona of Richard B. Riddick, and nothing was ever the same again.
This is the debut of Vin Diesel as Richard B. Riddick, the wanted murderer with a secret soft spot for children and furry animals. The film, which came out in 2000 to middling-at-best reviews, is also one of Diesel's first major roles. Diesel was just on the cusp of becoming the awesome Diesel-ness we know today. But even though it was his first meaty role, it's obvious he relished playing Riddick's tough-guy, live-by-my-own-code persona. This is most evident when young Diesel delivers his very serious lines with a half-grin, letting the audience in on the secret that he knows he's the coolest, and that we're lucky enough to be introduced to him.
But Diesel was still an up-and-comer in Pitch Black, and as such shared the spotlight with actor Radha Mitchell, who played Carolyn Fry, a junior pilot who — along with the prisoner Riddick — was one of the few survivors of a passenger spaceship that crash-landed on a desert planet where the suns apparently never set.
Things get dark — literally, in fact, as the planet faces an eclipse and large nocturnal alien creatures swarm the planet looking to kill anything in their path. The survivors reluctantly team up with the murderous Riddick in order to survive, and it's here we learn that not only is Riddick a major badass, but he can also see in the dark much better than the average human.
Pitch Black as a movie is still an enjoyable watch — it came out during the time of The Matrix (1999), The Mummy (1999), and Blade (1998), and somehow manages to be a cross-pollination of all three with a little Aliens action thrown in as well. That alone makes it an interesting film, but we also get our first examples of what have become classic Vin Diesel moves — there are numerous shots of him in a tank top, for one, and he also hones his skill at delivering deadpan lines like "Extremely bad timing" and "It did not know what it was f***ing with," before and after he massacres a bat-like alien looking for blood.
Riddick and two of the passengers — a young girl pretending to be a boy named Jack (Rhiana Griffith) and Imam (Keith David) — escape the planet with their whole lives and the whole universe before them. The good news is, we only have to wait until 2004 to see them again.
THE BEGINNING OF PEAK DIESEL: THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK (2004)
In which Diesel has become a badass movie star.
Things get bigger, more star-studded and much more expensive in the second Riddick installment, 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick. In the few short years since Pitch Black, Vin Diesel has starred in both The Fast and the Furious and xXx, fully cementing his place in Hollywood as a big action star. And Diesel knows he's a big star in this movie — his swagger, a small subtle thing in Pitch Black, is turbo-charged here. He knows he's brought Hollywood to its knees by his pure Diesel-ness, and he's ready for Riddick to do the same here.
The scope of the movie has to meet Diesel's new movie star status. And at $105 million, The Chronicles of Riddick's budget destroys Pitch Black's meager $23 million budget. The film also brought on some very big names (besides Diesel, of course), including Dame Judi Dench (!) as an amorphous Elemental, Karl Urban as Vaako, and Colm Feore as Riddick's main foe, the Lord Marshall of the Necromongers, a planet-pillaging cult determined to convert or kill all of humanity.
In Chronicles, there's no question that Diesel is the star of the film — Riddick remains a killer with supernatural abilities, and he wears his iconic tank top, goggles, and even a long flowy cape that manages to evoke both images of Batman and Dracula with flair. The two other survivors from Pitch Black are in this film as well, though both are ultimately killed by the Necromongers, causing Riddick to lose his cool and kill the Lord Marshall, making him the new ruler of the cult of the un-dead.
The scope of this film is impressive, and although it didn't do well critically or at the box office (earnings were only $115 million worldwide), its mashup of Gladiator (2000) and Hellboy (2004) make it an entertaining watch for any Diesel fan.
THE PEAK OF PEAK DIESEL: RIDDICK (2013)
In which Diesel gets back to Riddick's roots.
We had to wait nine years to find out what happens to Riddick next, but in 2013 the film appropriately called Riddick graced the big screen. This movie is smaller than The Chronicles of Riddick and had only a relatively meager $38 million to spend.
You don't need millions, however, to make Vin Diesel look like a badass. He's at the peak of his stardom now, and most importantly, he's fully settled into his Diesel-ness. Neither Riddick nor Diesel needs the glitz, glamour, and unnecessarily gratuitous shots of naked women found in the Necromonger empire — he's the baddest dude out there, all on his own.
The first 20 or so minutes of Riddick have Diesel fighting alien fauna who want nothing more than to kill him. Before Leonardo DiCaprio fought a bear in The Revenant, Vin Diesel strangled a pterodactyl-like thing with one hand, fought off a zebra-hyena creature with a femur bone, and hacked to death a scorpion alien-face creature that lives in the planet's meager watering holes.
The fighting is pure fun, but at some point we need to find out what Riddick is doing on this planet. It turns out he's been overthrown as the leader of the Necromongers and left here for dead. Riddick decides that that's a good thing, though, and gets in touch with his "animal side" by sloughing off his Necromonger armor and somehow managing to scrounge up his trademark tank top, goggles, and, for a few scenes at least, a nice, flowy cape.
The scope of Riddick, like the budget, is also much smaller — after befriending a zebra-striped hyena and making it to an abandoned outpost, he realizes that he needs to get off-planet before the rain comes (rain will let the scorpion-aliens loose, just as the darkness let those bat-aliens loose in Pitch Black). And so Riddick lets the universe know he's alive, and two groups of bounty hunters come to collect him (one group includes Katee Sackhoff!). Lots of fighting and Riddick badassery ensues, and the movie ends with him and a few others (including Katee Sackhoff) getting off-world.
And that's the last we've seen of Vin Diesel playing Riddick on the big screen (though you can get more of Riddick in video games and animated shorts). Is there another character that Vin Diesel plays who encapsulates the actor so perfectly? And will we ever see Diesel once again reprise the role of Richard B. Riddick? There's still hope on the last question — a fourth movie, Furya, was announced in 2017, and while there hasn't been any public update since then, we can all hope that Vin Diesel's portrayal of Riddick will dominate the big screen again in the future, reminding us that Diesel is his most Diesel self when playing the Furian who loves tank tops, tough-guy statements, and kicking ass.