When I was a child, I was a huge fan of the original Men in Black, so much so that when my dad was shopping for a new (new to us anyway) car the summer of my 12th birthday I talked him into getting the exact same 1980’s Ford LTD that was used in that movie. Call it effective marketing or just good timing but I found the combination of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones and their classic buddy cop repartee to be most infectious. It was that relationship along with some really cool suits, and a fun story, that made that movie so effective. It was the same combination we’ve seen with Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, and a million other cop movies with a veteran and a rookie cop who have a strained relationship. The only really big difference was all the aliens.
Now here comes R.I.P.D (Rest In Peace Department), the would-be successor to the Men in Black franchise it would seem. The concept and the title are both pretty clever. The set up is polished as you’d expect, but something is very obviously missing here. It seems this movie does indeed have all the bases covered upon first look though. They too operate in plain sight in a secret police force/agency, and they too drive around in an old boxy car straight out of the eighties, although not nearly as cool as our old LTD mind you. Instead of Tommy Lee Jones as the aging alien fighter we get the equally talented Jeff Bridges here as Roy, an old west gunfighter and veteran slayer of the undead. In place of Will Smith we get Ryan Reynolds as his new rookie partner Nick who was just double crossed and murdered by his previous partner, played here by Kevin Bacon. Bacon plays his small villainous role with here with a perfectly serviceable level of creepiness and deception. Before the double cross the two of them had discovered a strange golden artifact during a raid that they were initially going to keep off the books for their own personal gain, until Reynolds’s character has an attack of conscience that ultimately leads to his untimely demise.
The first issue I can see with this film is the casting of Jeff Bridges as Roycephus “Roy” Pulsipher. Bridges is needless to say, one of my all time favorite actors, but he is here given an impossible task to perform. This is a role that was obviously written for a Tommy Lee Jones type of actor. Bridges is called upon to treat Reynolds’s character with malice and disdain for most of the movie, and to speak to him in the most rude and callous way imaginable, mocking him at his own funeral while he tries to comfort his weeping widow. He is called upon to do this while still somehow managing to come off as likeable. Instead of that, he comes off as a deranged cartoonish socio-path most of the movie. I blame this on miscasting more than anything else. Bridges is just too naturally likeable to have him play such an unsympathetic and over the top kind of malicious character.
He’s got the right looks for the part, embracing the same old west outlaw look that he sported in Crazy Heart and True Grit, but instead of grit or heart, what’s on display here is just unkempt lunacy. Instead of a wise old sage he comes off as a bumbling cranky old Yosemite Sam caricature. It is entertaining at times but I found my overall investment in the main characters to be absolutely peripheral. Perhaps someone like Tommy Lee Jones who takes more naturally to roles requiring innate orneriness and vitriol instead of the likable qualities that have made Bridges such a beloved actor could have done more with the role, but then again, perhaps not, as you have to put a lot of the blame on a somewhat suspect script here as well.
Reynolds character mostly just came off as extremely bland to me. He lacks any of the style or panache of Will Smith from the movie that this one so desperately wants to emulate. That may seem like an unfair complaint but in a movie with unbelievable circumstances such as this it is crucial that the leading man have a presence big enough to not get buried by the hugeness of the special effects, the ludicrous nature of the plot, or the presence of his co-stars, all of which quickly leave Reynolds’s character as little more than background fodder for this big budget adventure in high tech ghoulishness. Speaking of which, the special effects here are more of the gross out gag variety than anything else.
Mary-Louise Parker plays the officer in charge of the Boston afterlife division. She comes off as sweet, sexy, and sassy here in a role that she owns from the start. There’s a romantic subplot with her and Bridges that isn’t given any time at all to develop and feels utterly tacked on and superfluous to the story. Stephanie Szostak stars as Julia, Nick’s wife/widow who just happens to get caught up in this giant cyclone of insanity. She is unable to recognize her late husband due to some rule of the universe that won’t let him communicate anything that might reveal his true identity. I’m thankful that whatever forces that actually control the universe are more competent than the ones that control it in this movie’s universe. Despite constant warnings to the cease and desist Nick is able to communicate his identity to Julia via repeated stalking of her. And as Bridge’s character mentions, the entire fate of the planet is put in jeopardy because some peckerwood a few thousand years ago was allowed to build this magic pyramid that releases undead spirits from their prison. I forgot to add, but if you saw the preview, you already know that both Bridges and Reynolds characters don’t look like they actually look to people in this movie. They both instead appear as a diminutive Chinese man and a sultry blonde respectively. This is supposed to be funny I assume but it is one of the more embarrassing running gags that falls flat for most of the movie, aside from a few novel scenes.
All that being said, it may sound like I disliked this movie quite a bit more than I actually did. I was disappointed somewhat that the great potential of this unique premise was somewhat squandered, but all in all, it did accomplish in meager ways what it wanted to be. Its purpose seemed to be a low-brained, big budget, action comedy and as that it worked amiably enough. The people I watched the movie with were amused in all the parts they were intended to be amused in and were never bored by what was onscreen. This is yet another example of a movie that gave away a good deal of its intended punch lines in the advertisements leading up to its release so there was very little that I hadn’t already seen or that I didn’t see coming a mile away in any event. My expectations had been tempered by bad reviews going into this movie, and I can understand the disappointment that those critics felt, but I wasn’t really appalled by what I saw on screen here. I just wasn’t really enthralled by it either.
R.I.P.D gets a two out of five: DECENT.