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RIDDICK

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C

One franchise is apparently insufficient for a star as awesome as Vin Diesel, so in addition to the “Fast and Furious” series he continues to treat us to episodes in the history of antihero Richard B. Riddick, whom he and writer-director David Twohy introduced in “Pitch Black” and then brought back in the larger but lumbering “The Riddick Chronicles.” Taken together, the trilogy might make you wish he had decided to continue with “The Pacifier” instead.

Actually, “Riddick”—the very direct title given to this third installment—could pass muster as a brainless action flick if its throwaway laugh lines weren’t so terrible and it weren’t unconscionably overlong at a full two hours. Certainly it won’t get any points for originality. Following the pattern of “Pitch Black,” which really wasn’t much more than a bargain-basement “Aliens” clone, it situates the brawny protagonist—after a perfunctory introduction that slides over the outcome of the second picture—on a planet populated only by hostile creatures (big, ravenous canines and huge scorpion snakes that ooze out of muddy ponds). But when he sets off an emergency beacon, it immediately brings two shiploads of well-armed mercenaries, all looking forward to bagging the universe’s most-wanted criminal and taking him back to civilization dead or alive for a substantial reward (doubled, in fact, if he’s dead).

The remainder of the movie consists of cat-and-mouse games—between the humans and the native beasts, between the two groups of mercenaries, and of course between Riddick and the mercs, as they’re called—before those who’ve survived the initial attacks of nasty creatures must band together to get the ships back in the air and themselves out of harm’s way. Much of what passes for plot centers on Riddick’s manipulation of the situation to insure that he’ll not only come out of it alive but go free. But he’s also given the illusion of depth in a half-hour sequence before the mercenaries arrive, during which he frees himself from the rubble in which he’s buried, resets his own broken leg, confronts the snake monsters and the canines (even adopting one of their pups, which becomes his pet), and generally shows us what it really means to be macho.

Part of the problem with “Riddick” is that as played monochromatically by Diesel, the title character is just a smug thug with a basso profundo voice and ultra-sensitive eyes that glow when they see in the dark. His prophetic pronouncements—usually threats against somebody or other—are supposed to be darkly humorous, but they come across instead as silly; there have been glum action heroes before, but Ruddick’s presumed charisma is an acquired taste it’s definitely easy to resist. The rest of the ensemble isn’t any more interesting. One group of mercenaries is led by Santana (over-the-top Jordi Malla), a wild, reckless, and as it turns out thoroughly inept loudmouth who suffers an end Riddick predicts well in advance (and his fans in the audience will cheer). The other is commanded by Johns (bland Matt Nable), who has a very personal interest in confronting Riddick that those who’ve seen previous installments in the series will especially appreciate.

Otherwise the mercenary crews are a bunch of largely pro-forma figures. The only ones that stand out from the pack of rough, stubble-wearing, burly types are the sole female, sharpshooter Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), who kicks butt with the best of them while managing to look positively seductive in her tight leather outfit, and Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk), the nervous rookie who spouts prayers at every tense moment (though what such a wet-behind-the-ears kid is doing among a pack of cutthroats is never explained). It must be admitted, though, that as Diaz former pro wrestler Dave Bautista does outdo the others in bulk alone, and the inevitable face-off between him and Diesel challenges the brontosaurus-tyrannosaurus rex battle in “The Lost World” for grandiosity.

Twohy manages some sudden shocks (helped by Tracy Adams’ editing and Graeme Revell’s big-bang score), and by and large proves more than adequate directing the action scenes, though his handling of the dialogue-driven interludes is pretty ham-fisted, and he and Diesel have a hard time wringing any emotion from an “Old Yeller” moment tossed into the mix. The visual effects are adequate on what would appear to be a pretty tight budget, though neither the vast landscapes nor the alien creatures are state-of-the-art. The fact that a 3D conversion was eschewed is a point in the movie’s favor.

By going back to basics after the goofy excesses of “Chronicles,” this installment will prove popular with fans of brainless action movies and/or the massively inexpressive Diesel. But there’s nothing special about “Riddick,” which is no more than a mostly competent but utterly mediocre exercise in outer-space mayhem.

CLOSED CIRCUIT

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C

Britain’s intelligence service has long been glorified in the James Bond movies, but it gets rough treatment indeed in “Closed Circuit,” a post-9/11 legal thriller in which MI5’s major attributes appear to be ineptitude and ruthless self-preservation. The fact that its makers—writer Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises”) and director John Crowley (“Boy A”)—have done such outstanding work in the past, it’s a particular disappointment.

The main characters are a pair of lawyers, Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe(Rebecca Hall). They’re appointed by Britain’s Attorney General (Jim Broadbent) to an important terrorism case, centering on Farroukh Erdogan (Denis Moschitto), a Turkish immigrant accused of masterminding the bombing of a London open-air market. Rose is to be Erdogan’s defense counsel, assisted—as barristers always are in England—by a solicitor named Devlin (Ciaran Hinds). Simmons-Howe, on the other hand, is to serve as his special advocate—a supposedly neutral barrister assigned to study the top secret evidence against the accused that the state doesn’t want revealed in open court in order to argue in closed session, if appropriate, that it be made public. (Her role has no equivalent in the American system; perhaps the closest would be if someone were to take the role of devil’s advocate against the government before the so-called FISA court.)

To preserve the integrity of this process, Martin and Claudia are supposed to have no past connection or present contact. But it turns out they were once lovers—which perhaps led to the acrimonious breakup of Martin’s marriage and his wife’s hostility (a plot point that has very little impact here), and which it’s soon revealed is not unknown to the Attorney General, who wants Erdogan’s conviction to be swift and certain in order to reassure voters about the administration’s anti-terrorist credentials and is willing to use the potentially career-destroying relationship to keep the lawyers in line.

But of course in keeping with the conventions of such corrupt-officialdom plots, Rose and Simmons-Howe won’t be pawns of the powers-that-be. Soon they’re conspiring to uncover the truth, which turns out to be prospectively very damaging to public confidence. Doing so not only puts them in jeopardy, but also endangers Erdogan’s teen son Iqbal (Neil D’Souza). Others involved in the increasingly twist-laden scenario are Devlin, well-informed New York Times reporter Joanna Reece (Julia Stiles), MI5 operatives Nazrul (Riz Ahmed) and Melissa (Anne-Marie-Duff), and an earnest judge (Kenneth Cranham).

“Closed Circuit” certainly takes on an important issue in today’s world—the willingness of government agencies to resort to unsavory, and probably illegal, means in their counter-terrorism operations, and their natural tendency to cover up anything that goes wrong in conducting them. But as films as far back as “Three Days of the Condor” demonstrated, you have to construct a whip-smart, perfectly constructed screenplay to make such a story compelling and convincing. Simply put, Knight hasn’t: in fact, the entire plot is pretty much a cheat, since in the end MI5 solves matters with an blow that could have been struck as soon as Erdogan was arrested, rendering everything that happens afterward totally unnecessary. (Of course, then there would be no movie, which explains why the easy solution was ignored.) But setting that aside, the plot that does unfold is filled with implausibility and simple stupidity. There are clandestine meetings that have no payoff and chases that literally go nowhere. And throughout the intelligence agency’s actions are incredibly inept—from a ludicrously ill-advised murder attempt that goes awry to a blackmail attempt that’s dead in the water, and even a confinement in a closely-guarded safe house that’s compromised by something as simple as a hair dryer (the very presence of which makes no sense anyway). And MI5 is apparently short-handed, since the same people are shown trailing the protagonists over and over, sticking out like sore thumbs.

Some of these deficiencies could have been at least obscured by taut direction and editing, but Crowley and Lucia Zucchetti allow the picture to lumber along, building up little tension and no excitement. Under the circumstances the cast do what they can—Bana and Hall project at least a stern sense of duty, though there’s little romantic chemistry between them—while Broadbent manages an oily smugness, Hinds a boozy easygoingness and Ahmed a slick nefariousness. But they’re given little to do, as is Stiles, who’s totally wasted in a throwaway part. By contrast Duff comes on too strong and strident.

The picture is attractively mounted, with cinematographer Adriano Goldman taking advantage of the London locations. But ultimately “Closed Circuit” comes across as a legal thriller curiously devoid of thrills—the sort of stolid, unexceptional film that might serve as a perfectly adequate offering on PBS Masterpiece Mystery but is woefully out of place on the big screen.