Roundly slated as a Men in Black rip-off, R.I.P.D. has to face up and plead guilty as charged. It’s Men in Black without the star chemistry and servicing the strictly formulaic plotting of that series’ second instalment. Really though, it’s just pretty mediocre. This has been rather over shadowed by everything else it represents; further evidence that Ryan Reynolds is box office poison and also a huge loser for Universal as one of the biggest bombs of 2013 (barely making back half of its costs).
It’s curious how little this feels like a Robert Schwentke movie. His previous pictures at least feel fairly clean and precise in design and composition, from Flight Plan to Time Traveller’s Wife to RED. The only familiarity here is the cutout title/character designs used by RED (a style that was appealing when it first appeared, but is rapidly becoming over-used; we’ve also seen it in the likes of Tropic Thunder and Iron Man Three). Perhaps Schwentke was fully aware he was making an MiB movie, as this looks like nothing so much as if it was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, with all the cartoonishness and noisy inelegance that suggests.
The premise of dead cops and lawmen retained to dispense justice in the afterlife (with the Rest In Peace Department) comes with a cumbersome and unfinessed mythology attached. They must police “Deadoes”, the deceased who refuse to move on quietly and choose to hang out in the physical world. Inevitably, there’s an ancient device (the Staff of Jericho) that, when assembled, will allow the Earth to be invaded en masse by departed souls. This kind of thing has been done before on TV; Brimstone, with no one’s favourite lead actor Peter Horton and a fun turn by Jon Glover as the Devil; also Good vs Evil, concerning a heaven-sent police force with a Blaxploitation vibe. Both of those aired around the turn of the millennium, and Peter M. Lenkov’s Dark Horse comic, upon which this is based, appeared about the same time. The long gestation period might well have been a warning sign, but the returned-from-the-dead righter of wrongs is a potent theme in everything from High Plains Drifter to The Crow, and even played for laughs it has potential. So what went wrong?
With Men in Black, even when the plotting was running on fumes (again, I’m thinking mainly of the second, but the third isn’t exactly ground-breaking even if it’s better than it has any right to be) the easy chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones kept it lively. R.I.P.D. has no such luck. Reynolds and Bridges are consummately professional with each other, but there’s no spark to their rookie and old-timer routine. It’s fashionable to rag on Reynolds, and I couldn’t say I have a particular beef with him generally one way or the other, but he doesn’t feel right for this. He’s been thrown a very straight revenge/lost love narrative arc (with a bit of guilt over some criminal activity in there too) and the sub-Patrick Swizzle Ghost malarkey doesn’t quite sit right with the broadness in every other aspect.
Bridges, meanwhile, is just taking the piss. Is there any reason other than his (deserved) True Grit Oscar nomination that he seems to be essaying the same beardy mumble-mouth at every opportunity since? I’ve been a fan since forever, but this does inevitably wear thin. His is a spirited performance – no one could accuse him of being lazy – but he’s just not very funny, and his turn creates the added problem of nigh-on incomprehensibility. Zach Galifianakis originally had the role, and that more contemporary mismatch might have worked better with Reynolds. You can easily imagine this went through a host of casting permutations before the producers begrudgingly settle on these two, just to hit a start date. As it is, they look like they should be in completely different movies and the tone is off as a result.
Adding to that unevenness, R.I.P.D. has some of the worst CGI in any major $130m movie I can recall. It’s replete with the kind of shitty cartoony creature effects rife in pictures a decade or more ago (The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen, for example, or any given Stephen Sommers movie). They going for the Men in Black slapstick creature work, but what they’ve got is a sloppy digital mess. There’s nothing very inventive about the Deadoes visually, and the weightless CGI, with characters careening up skyscrapers or leaping to the ground from great heights, fails to be endearingly large-than-life. Mostly because it’s all so slipshod and lacking in any discernable quality control. Schwentke just has too much going on; this is busy, busy, busy, without the style to compensate.
On the plus side, R.I.P.D. doesn’t labour the point. It has some zip to it and, as undernourished as it is in terms of originality, it occasionally hits its targets. There’s an Eternal Affairs department, which investigates R.I.P.D. policing issues. Kevin Bacon is in familiar bad guy mode but he’s good loathsome value, as is a brief appearance from Robert Knepper (Knepper would actually have been a much better fit for lead villain, since he has a naturally broader style). Mary-Louise Parker has a smallish role, but her comic chops are a strong as ever (and she’s better catered for than in RED 2, which came out at the same time). And Stephanie Szostak makes an impression in the Demi Moore role, particularly when you consider she was signficantly less endearing in Iron Man Three the same summer.
As slipshod and derivative as much of this is, it does occasionally raise a smile. Best are the avatars of Bridges’ Roy and Reynolds’s Nick; humans see them as a voluptuous blonde (Marisa Miller) and an old Chinese guy (the peerless James Hong) respectively, such an incongruous combination (and accompanied by a raucously effective use of slow motion and Robyn’s Konichiwa Bitches) it can’t fail to raise a smile every time we cut to them (which just can’t be enough times, as it happens). Then there is the Deadoes’ reaction to spicy food, particularly enjoyable when it’s Knepper mugging away with over-the-top disgust. The presence of Hong, so wholly without equal in Big Trouble in Little China, reminds you that movie is the sort of wild, whacky and witty ride this should be aspiring towards. Unfortunately it’s nothing of the sort.
But I can’t be that down on R.I.P.D. Visually it’s frequently quite ugly, and jarringly edited. It’s noisy and lacks panache. The leads just don’t mesh and the script is hasn’t an ounce of originality. But as bad movies go, it’s rarely actually offensively bad. And occasionally it’s actually borderline good fun.