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MOVIE REVIEW

'Chronicles' benefits from Diesel power

When last you saw Riddick, it was probably about 1 a.m. and you had stumbled across an airing of 2000's "Pitch Black" on HBO and thought to yourself that for a cheap "Aliens" knockoff, this was actually a pretty smart little movie. Moreover, you came out of it with something approaching respect for Vin Diesel as the anti-heroic Riddick, an escaped interplanetary prisoner with metallic eyes that allow him to see in the dark. The movie harnessed the actor's meathead contempt for everything and everybody to a character who had a reason to feel that way instead of just copping an attitude.

Both science-fiction action films and Diesel's career have gone steroid in the intervening years, so here's a big-budget new Riddick movie from "Pitch Black" writer-director David Twohy. In fact, "The Chronicles of Riddick" is being positioned as the first in what is hoped will be a series that fuses aspects of "Star Wars" and "The Matrix." The similarities don't end there.

When a giant black statue head fills the screen at the very beginning of "Chronicles," I thought the Wachowski brothers had somehow pulled a bait-and-switch and were coming at us with "The Matrix Regurgitated." It turns out that the ships of the all-conquering Necromongers just look like the Wachowskis' climactic Machine-God. Not coincidentally, Diesel comes off as a beefier, less considerate Keanu Reeves. Riddick is drafted against his will to save the universe, the planet of Helion Prime, the human race, and the benign spirit beings known as Elementals, who are represented in the film by an ethereal dowager empress named Aereon. Understanding that there's nothing like a Dame, the producers have cast Judi Dench, who flickers in and out of visibility as if her agent hadn't fully committed her to the role.

Fans of muscular sci-fi and teenage boys of all ages will probably kick my rating up by at least a star, because, really, "Chronicles of Riddick" is a perfectly acceptable entry in the summer-behemoth genre. The beetle-black CGI spaceships cross ashen skies, the fight scenes are filmed with remarkable stop-time panache, you could cut the pulpy comic-book doom with a plastic knife. Riddick's silvery eyes, often covered with welder's goggles, make you less aware you're dealing with Diesel, who, in any event, swaggers less and gets down to business more.

And Twohy can direct. Initially, "Chronicles" is a hodgepodge of "Lord of the Rings," "Starship Troopers," and the more recent "Star Wars" films, as Riddick is brought in to fight the Necromongers on the theory that to fight evil you "need a different kind of evil" (or at least a really ticked off personal trainer). Helion Prime is overrun by enemy storm troopers, though, led by the mystical and somewhat silly Lord Marshal (Colm Feore), who can suck souls from his victims.

Twohy's been boning up on his George Lucas and Leni Riefenstahl, but in the second act he starts trusting his impulses, and the film takes off. Riddick is captured by bounty hunters led by the sleazy Toombs (Nick Chinlund) and taken to the prison planet Crematoria, where sunrise kicks off temperatures of over 700 degrees. It's the inverse of "Pitch Black," in other words, and like that film, this section of "Chronicles" offers action with clever twists and impressively visualized dangers.

Crematoria is also host to Kyra (Alexa Davalos), who was once the boyish adolescent of "Pitch Black" and who here becomes Riddick's increasingly unlikely love interest. There's a prison escape, some scaly pangolin/wolf beasties, a run across the surface of the planet with sunrise just behind -- all good genre fun. But then we have to go back to Helion Prime and the messianic hooey needed to assure a sequel.

Like everything in this humorless new genre, "Chronicles" comes with its own snap-together mythology. Riddick turns out to be the sole survivor (maybe) of the Furians, a warrior race that was obliterated after the Lord Marshal killed off their firstborn on the advice of an oracle. That either makes him Moses or Oedipus; I'm not sure. There's Shakespeare in the mix, too, with the Lord Marshal's right-hand strongman, Lord Vaako (Karl Urban of "Lord of the Rings," his Eomer tresses traded in for a truly hideous future-mullet), urged toward rebellion by his ambitious wife. Dame Vaako is played with high, slithering camp by Thandie Newton as if Cleopatra had just returned from having her claws sharpened at a day spa.

She's also the only note of fun in this massive enterprise, which is more typified by sub-"Flash Gordon" lines like "Take him back to the ship for mind regression!" Diesel's dialogue mostly consists of dour throwdowns meant to establish his rebel credentials. Asked by Aereon if there are others like him, Riddick replies, "Sister, they don't know what to do with one of me." Maybe not, but, boy, are they trying.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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