Vin Diesel reprises the role that made him a star in "The Chronicles of Riddick," the long-awaited sequel to the 2000 cult hit "Pitch Black." In the follow-up, writer-director David Twohy decided to subscribe to the More Is More school of filmmaking. Diesel's biceps aren't just big, they're swollen to the point of looking like Thanksgiving Day balloons; his character faces an army of not hundreds but thousands of masked and armored soldiers, who fan out across an elaborate landscape like so many black-shelled cicadas.
"The Chronicles of Riddick" doesn't hark back merely to the classic horror or science fiction canon but to nearly every single cinematic genre in the book, from westerns to film noir to sword-and-sandal epics. The scale is massive, the volume incalculable, the mishmash of historical and literary references too thick to untangle.
This will provide plenty to chew on for admirers of Riddick, the cynical neo-noir protagonist played by Diesel with monosyllabic hauteur. And, as what amounts to a huge advertisement for a video game, it succeeds in tantalizing prospective players with lots of new places, characters and story lines. Most important, it ends on a deliciously unexpected note just begging for another installment. If much of "The Chronicles of Riddick" is visually unintelligible, lost in a welter of whipsaw editing, blurry close-ups and strobe lights, it won't matter to fans who have waited four long years for the next chapter in their antihero's gritty adventures.
As that chapter opens, Riddick is a hunted man, being chased by a spaceship full of mercenaries, or "mercs." The man who hired them is a Janus-masked figure named Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), head of the Necromongers, a huge army of nihilistic crusaders bent on converting the entire universe to their belief in nothingness. Why Riddick has been singled out for capture eludes him -- in the tradition of the noir heroes he's based on, he just wants to be left alone -- until halfway through the movie. At that point, his past has already caught up with him during a visit to New Mecca, a peaceable multicultural kingdom that flies in the face of the Necromongers' obsession with racial purity. He will also cross paths with one of his cronies from "Pitch Black," all grown up with an attitude almost as snarly as his.
"The Chronicles of Riddick," which calls to mind such comic book franchises as "X-Men" and "Hellboy" in its internal logic and densely woven mythology, manages to put its hero in a number of perilous situations, from which he always ingeniously escapes (just don't look too hard at why he's in those situations in the first place, or the whole thing will fall apart). At one point, the pumped-up Riddick -- his milky blue eyes hidden behind a pair of ever-present goggles -- leads a ragtag crew on a race over a 700-degree planet called Crematoria, outrunning a tsunami of molten lava in a set piece that suggests what will happen the day after the day after tomorrow. These moments would be kind of fun if Twohy calmed down long enough to let them sink in; instead, he keeps piling on the visuals at a frenetic pace. This is particularly irksome during the fight scenes. "Who's the better killer?" Riddick asks an ally during one pivotal confrontation. With such a lack of visual coherence on-screen, who would know?
Diesel has clearly been cast for his tightly coiled physique rather than his acting ability; whereas most acting coaches are off camera with a script in their hands, you picture his with a pail of raw meat yelling, "This time you're really angry!" He's no Bogart, whose world-weary loners Riddick is meant to recall, but he does make an effective human King Kong, a character the movie refers to almost as often.
Laying it on ever thicker, Twohy has created an often eye-popping world of his own in "The Chronicles of Riddick," from the warm-toned, Andalusian-themed New Mecca to the fascist baroque-monumental aesthetic of the Necromongers. And he has created some interesting new characters, including a futuristic Lady Macbeth (Thandie Newton) and a lovely ectoplasmic oracle played by Judi Dench. Every time these two formidable actresses are on the screen, "The Chronicles of Riddick" threatens to become a serious movie, but they're quickly overwhelmed by another indecipherable rampage or outsize visual effect. Bigger may not always be better, but for these filmmakers, it's obviously the point.
The Chronicles of Riddick (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for language and intense sequences of violent action.