For years, the summer movie season has been filled with titles with roman numerals. The sequel season has both critics and audiences complaining about the lack of original content, although enough people line up to see familiar characters, rehashed plots and plain old retreads that the studios continue to churn them out year after year.
Pity the poor movie that isn't completely pre-sold to a particular audience yet isn't exactly original in its ideas or storyline. When the media wants to unleash its fury, it goes after the movies that aren't part of a franchise but are so formulaic they may as well be.
That's the case with R.I.P.D., based on a not-widely-known comic book. The film has been included in a bevy of articles ahead of its release about summer box-office "bombs." According to industry insiders, Universal, the studio behind R.I.P.D., is bracing for a bloodbath at the box-office with the film. Universal didn't screen the movie in advance in many markets, and where it did screen the movie early, it was only an hour or two before the first screenings available to the general public. That's not a sign of confidence; it's the sign of a studio that wants to prevent bad word of mouth on the film for as long as it can.
The problem with this strategy is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: once the word gets out about the studio's efforts to keep viewers from previewing a movie, those who do go to see it expect the worst, and that's what they claim to see. On the plus side, the bad buzz allows some attendees to enjoy the film more than they might have had they gone with sky-high expectations.
Whatever R.I.P.D.'s flaws—a story too reminiscent of Men in Black and Ghostbusters... uneven special effects... a mindless, overextended finale—the film is blessed with a loony performance from the great Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), who delivers several hearty laughs, especially during the film's first half.
Nick (Ryan Reynolds, Turbo) is a police officer who has made a foolish decision: he's held on to some riches obtained during a bust made with his partner, Hayes (Kevin Bacon, X-Men: First Class). Hayes isn't too happy when a contrite Nick says he’s changed his mind and wants to give back his part of the haul, so Hayes dispatches Nick to the afterlife.
That's where Nick meets Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker, RED 2), the bureau chief of the Rest In Peace Department (R.I.P.D.). She lets Nick know that things aren't looking too good for him in terms of eternal destiny, but he can earn her recommendation for reconsideration by serving with the R.I.P.D. The department's mission? To find souls that have escaped justice and are living on Earth, disguised as humans. If the premise sounds a lot like Men in Black, with aliens swapped out for dead souls, just remember that Hollywood isn't exactly a hotbed of originality.
But it takes only one special element to set a movie apart from the uninspired stories that fill movie screens throughout the year, predominately during summer. What gives R.I.P.D. a surprising edge over some of its current competition is Bridges' performance as Roy, who is assigned to be Nick's partner. Gruff and disdainful of new-kid-on-the-block Nick, Roy, who lived during the 1800s but has spent decades in spiritual limbo serving with the R.I.P.D., combines gruff weariness with old-fashioned dignity as he schools Nick in the ways of "dead-os" (the escaped souls disguised as humans) and capitalizes on his own unusual avatar. As Roy explains to Nick, the way they appear to each other is not the way the humans they come into contact with see them. Nick has the form of an older Asian man, while Roy is a buxom blonde who turns the heads of every male in her vicinity.
Their mission is to expose a plot to reverse the vortex that sends souls to the afterlife, thereby returning the dead en masse to Earth, where they'd overrun humanity. To prevent that, the duo will have to warm up to each other and learn how to work together.
That part of the film's premise might sound familiar, too. Yes, R.I.P.D. is another buddy-cop movie dressed up as an ghost-driven action flick, and like the best movies in that genre, it rises and falls based on the chemistry between its leads. Here, Reynolds plays the straight man to Bridges' grizzled vet, who has a few personality quirks. When Roy reflects on Nick's earthly death, he contrasts it to his own more brutal end. "You got shot with a modern bullet," he tells Nick. "I would've loved a modern bullet." Why does Roy bother to eat human food that, as he explains, he can't taste in his dead-but-just-visiting guise? "I enjoy the mouthfeel." But Roy isn't always so laid back. When a skeptical Nick challenges Roy about his attitude—"I thought you were a rebel"—Roy gets his back up: "I fought for the North," he responds, indignantly.
R.I.P.D. chugs along for about an hour, getting by on goodwill toward Bridges' character and performance, before it resolves with a bloated, chaotic finale typical of too many summer-movie extravaganzas. That makes the second half of the film more disappointing than the first, but given the drumbeat of negative press surrounding the film, and the studio's treatment of it, you wouldn't be faulted for expecting much worse. So few movies have anything pleasurable to offer, but R.I.P.D. has yet another memorable Bridges performance. That's not nothing—even if the movie surrounding that performance isn't up to his level. That includes the film's ridiculous theology, which is nothing more than a flimsy set-up for yet another buddy comedy with its own twist.
The media has already buried the film, but the choice to see it is yours. You can dance on the movie's grave, or you can see it and write your own epitaph.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; “what the f…?”; foul language; racial jokes; a middle finger is extended
- Sex/Nudity: Julia, in her panties, jumps on Nick in bed, and they kiss; jokes are made about police officers walking around naked while putting on their uniforms, but we see only from the waist up; Nick tells Roy his name "sounds like an STD"; cleavage and a reference to "magnificent breasts"; Roy says that in his day, he "bought his love by the hour"; Roy says a coyote "made love to my skull"; Roy refers to a "beautiful moment" with Proctor, but she refers to Roy as a "catastrophic mistake"
- Violence/Crime: Police officers steal gold; Nick is shot by his partner and falls several stories from a building; an arm is ripped off a body; a man is struck in the head with a metal sign; violent chases; a climax that involves the possibility of the undead returning to earth; a video producer is threatened with castration; transformations by characters exposed as being dead include one man's head splitting open
- Religion/Morals: Nick questioned about how he felt as he was "headed to justice" in the afterlife; Nick is told he can "take his chances" with judgment or join the R.I.P.D., which catches people who have "escaped justice"; Proctor says Nick could use a good recommendation on Judgment Day; some of the dead are still on earth because the judgment system "wasn’t designed for" the kind of "volume" of deaths each day; the dead are said to take an interest in religious artifacts; a character says, "Praise the Lord"
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