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Vin Diesel holds a unique position in terms of celebrity persona. He’s a man who clearly cares about fambly as the tough guy patriarch of the Fast and Furious franchise, he’s the delightfully macho superspy of xXx, and, as we all know ad nauseum, he is Groot. With the exception of that last iconic role, Diesel would at first glance seem to fall into an archetypal screen persona that has mostly fallen out of vogue since its height in the 1980s, or at the very least has transformed in such a way that pure muscle is no longer the measure of cinematic masculinity. But as the presence of Groot in his recent prominence shows, Vin Diesel isn’t a man who is solely defined by being macho. In fact, he’s very public about his love of science fiction and fantasy, even though his screen presence would have made him a competitor to Schwarzenegger and Stallone in more grounded action movies a mere generation earlier. However, there is one film that captures a very specific cross-section of Diesel’s appeal. It’s a role that cropped up relatively early in his career, could only have arisen out of the nu-metal eccentricities of the early 2000s, and would become the basis for Diesel to expend way too much effort in attempting to revisit and recapture. Of course, I’m talking about Richard B. Riddick of Pitch Black.
Hollywood was no stranger to putting muscle-bound men in science fiction by this point, but rarely has one of those performers leaned so heavily into such a role like Vin Diesel as Riddick. An important thing to remember is that Riddick is not the star of the film; he’s a supporting character who is prominent in his ability to help fellow spaceship crash survivors handle the harsh conditions of their desert marooning. He’s the equivalent of this film’s Captain Jack Sparrow, enabling the real protagonist, Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell), to come into her own as the acting captain. Riddick doesn’t really grow or change over the course of the journey to find a way off-planet, so while he is a nominally cool character on paper, with his night vision and definitive fuck-you attitude, he’s also not the emotional center of the film.
Or at least that would be the case if Diesel weren’t such a show-stealer in the role. Despite not being the main character, Riddick is afforded so much focus and screen time because Diesel is playing this guy like a tough guy action star in a really goofy science fiction premise. And let’s be clear, Pitch Black is, at its core, a very silly movie. It’s about a group of people stranded on a planet that has monsters which only come out in darkness because they are physically harmed by light, and this group just so happens to have a man with them who is perfectly adapted for that sort of environment. It’s the sort of contrivance you roll with because it’s an excuse to set up all the monster stalking business later on, but what’s so fun about Diesel’s self-serious performance is that he seems to be completely at odds with the film’s self-awareness of that absurdity.
You can tell that the film is self-aware from moments like Zeke’s death by alien monster while searching for Riddick, only for Riddick to be shown via quick zoom as lounging beneath an umbrella. But Diesel is playing Riddick as a tough-guy ubermensch who doesn’t know to wink at the camera when he’s being his most ludicrous. Riddick himself isn’t without a sense of humor, such as when he tells bounty hunter William Johns (Cole Hauser) that his knife is merely a “personal grooming appliance” or when he casually brushes off his hands after narrowly avoiding a swarm of alien bats, but he’s also deadly serious about being the toughest guy in the room. His perpetual dick-measuring contest with Johns results in a face-off in the dark where Riddick clearly has the advantage and allows Johns to be murdered by ravenous alien beasts, and he unironically kills an alien with the line “He did not know who he was fucking with,” as if that were a one-liner worth quoting and not borderline nonsensical against a non-human opponent. Though the film is humorous and leans into being a monster movie with disposable humans getting mauled to death, Diesel is putting all his efforts into giving Riddick and this world a serious and credible treatment that would have left the film bland and forgettable without him.
The point is that what’s so appealing about Diesel when he’s in full-on fantasy nerd mode is when he takes a project way more seriously than the other people making the film. This is part of why the Riddick sequels don’t really work as well as Pitch Black. Because those were projects that came into existence from Diesel’s passion for the character, elevating a supporting character from a high-concept one-off into a faux epic hero, they didn’t have anything to funnel Diesel’s very serious love into except stuff that was too serious to remember why any of it was supposed to be fun in the first place. Pitch Black is a tonally perfect blend of turn-of-the-millennium cheese, action movie bravado from a bygone era, and Diesel’s heartfelt appreciation for the genre trappings of a genre for which he would not normally be typecast. As much as Dominic Toretto and Xander Cage will always dominate Diesel’s screen persona, it’s just a shame that he doesn’t get to bring more characters like Riddick to life, because he has the incredible ability to transform the absurd into the iconic through sheer force of passion.