Thank heavens for Jeff Bridges! His squinting, six-barrel-slinging, Stetson-wearing frontier marshal is the only thing in this undead cop thriller with a pulse. R.I.P.D., Robert Schwentke’s uninspired mashup of Men in Black, Ghostbusters, and Ghost, had its obituary written by the press long before release, critics everywhere denouncing it as the ninth circle of mindless blockbusters. If the film is not exactly the calamity everyone portended, it’s due solely to Bridges and a sprinkling of some mildly impressive special effects. But as much as the actor tries, and as much as he succeeds to elevate his grizzled, gravely 19th century lawman turned 21st century deceased detective way above the potential and pretense of an inert script, R.I.P.D. showed up in theaters DOA. Its few isolated positives are as noticeable and affecting as a fine summer mist amidst a raging, bludgeoning thunderstorm of bad.
Adapted from Peter M. Lenkov’s Dark Horse comic series by the Clash of the Titans team of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the movie has character types instead of characters, obvious villains, and sluggish plotting that introduces one tediously predictable element after another: the young honest cop, his adoring, beautiful French wife, and the corrupt partner who talks him into some dirty, risky business that leads to his demise. (As an aside, is it just me or does that stolen “gold” look like shineless spray-painted gravel?)
Because of a clerical error in the great filing cabinet of the cosmos, a few wayward souls actually cheat death and stick around on Earth instead of moving on to heaven or hell, their aura of bad karma causing unhappiness and decay for the rest of humanity. The devoted lawmen of the titular Rest in Peace Department are in charge of capturing and bringing these “deados” to their judgments. I’m certain it wouldn’t spoil a thing to reveal exactly how the earnest Boston cop, Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds), arrives at dedicating his afterlife to the force, but I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble of typing it up either.
R.I.P.D. central, a bustling hive of activity clearly modeled on Men in Black’s futuristic headquarters, is run by the female equivalent to Agent Zed, a sly, sardonic, world-weary personnel manager played by Mary-Louise Parker. There is promise to this setup—an existentially white, Beetlejuice-like bureaucratic imaginary world of public servitude to explore, complete with a melee of cops in the uniforms of their eras, from Victorian moustaches through bobby helmets and snap-brim fedoras to SWAT gear—but, like most everything else in the film of any value, Parker’s dryly efficient officer and her surroundings are dangled in front of you and then quickly disregarded.
Nick is partnered up with Roy (short for Roycephus) Pulsifer (Bridges), a cheerful, colorful anachronism embodied with scenery-chewing aplomb and comic abandon by Bridges. A cross between the Dude, True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn and Yosemite Sam, the old marshal works wonders for the film, especially when expressing his particular fondness for the gruesome details of his earthly demise, at one point whipping out a squeezebox and wailing a hilariously maudlin ballad entitled “The Better Man.” The two cops take an instant disliking to each other, to be settled through buddy banter and a common cause: saving the universe.
Sound a bit familiar? That’s because you’ve seen this movie before; it’s called Men in Black—they even drive the same frickin’ Cadillac, people!—and R.I.P.D. is nothing more than its slightly retarded, genetically mutated clone baby. Schwentke reverses the dynamic of MIB, however, casting the young Nick as a stony, straight-faced, determined detective instead of the hotshot street cop and the experienced Roy as a wisecracking loose cannon instead of a crotchety old veteran.
As interesting as this dichotomy appears, there’s a giant hole where the movie should be; Schwentke forgets to tell the story. He hints Bridges and Reynold’s cops are at each other’s throats (for no apparent reason) after about three seconds of foreplay, and then the forced tension is resolved (I’m assuming somewhere along the cutting room floor) and the odd couple miraculously turns into BFFs and it’s off the save humanity. The mismatched heroes unearth a massive conspiracy to rebuild a MacGuffin, sorry, ancient totem that will reverse the order of the universe and make a gushing cyclone of the dead rain down upon the living. Coincidences be damned, this plan somehow involves Nick’s smirking, scowling ex-partner Hayes (Kevin Bacon), and builds to a massive doomsday finale that threatens to turn downtown Boston into a Wild West of the living dead. Cue the run-ins between the heavenly officers and the monsters, who roam the streets looking completely normal until their true, beastly selves are lured out by Indian spices or something—the logic gets a bit foggy here.
The nine-figure budget which has become the universally acceptable price tag of Hollywood between the months of May and October buys R.I.P.D. some dark, muddy, wholly unnecessary 3D and a slick, styleless sheen. With a flimsy (at best) story, no character development, no human touch to make it look like someone—anyone—behind or in front of the camera actually cares, the film devolves into the noisy nonsense of industrial moviemaking. I’d like to think this is just a case of studio executives stepping in and on creative vision, but there is simply no life to the elaborate creature transformations, endless onslaught of car chases, fistfights, and body-slamming fests that are singularly uninvolving, considering everyone involved is already dead and can’t get hurt—“You have a very impressive crumple zone,” Roy compliments Nick after using him as a human trampoline to land on from the height of a skyscraper.
The one original, actually “special” effect is a three-dimensional freeze frame that occurs at the moment of death, when time-slice photography lets us poke around still images of explosions and gun battles, and the scene in which Nick gets sucked up into the great purgatorial police station in the sky offers some of the most beautiful multicolored clouds since Vanilla Sky.
A promising but underused comic idea involves the characters’ undercover avatars. R.I.P.D. officers appear disguised to human beings, which causes a few laughs when Nick is glimpsed as an old Chinese guy (James Hong) waving a banana instead of a gun next to Roy’s impossibly buxom blond bombshell (Marisa Miller). So much more could have been done with this gag and wasn’t, it’s almost as if the director forgot what he was working with from one scene to the next.
R.I.P.D. seems unsure of what it wants to be, at times looking like a really poorly-timed montage of two disparate movies, one about a young, sensitive cop coming to terms with his own mortality, the other a comedic cowboy shoot-‘em-up. The end result is as loud, hulking, and graceless as the hyperbolic CG villains that flounce and slobber through the movie. R.I.P.D. lies limply on the screen, as if about to start rotting and festering before your eyes. Bridges’ cop, eyes ablaze with mirth and mischief, sure has a lot of fun trying to resuscitate it with his Buffalo Bill goatee, cocked cowboy hat, silky gray mane, and ill-fitting dentures, but this soulless film seems determined to stop him dead in his tracks. R.I.P.