‘R.I.P.D.’ is even less lively than its characters

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Directed by Robert Schwentke
Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi
2013, USA

It’s said that Hollywood is always trying to make the thing which was a hit last year. In the case of R.I.P.D., it simply took Universal ten years to get the movie done. The project must have been pitched shortly after the release of Peter Lenkov’s 2001 comic book with the log line “Men in Black with ghosts instead of aliens”, but it spent some time in development hell and was finally released last weekend more out of pity than hope for success.

Ryan Reynolds plays a Boston police detective who dies in the line of duty after pulling something dishonest with partner Kevin Bacon. He’s offered a new lease on unlife by the titular Rest In Peace Department, hunting the restless dead (“deados”) with former Old West marshal Jeff Bridges. Exactly how or why the RIPD does what it does is barely explained and aggressively ignored afterward; not only does this film want to avoid mention of any gods running the show, but it refuses to even hint at the workings of the justice system that the RIPD is enforcing.

Like many pictures that emerge from development hell, R.I.P.D. is a mess of different tones. It can’t decide if it’s a buddy-cop comedy, or a more action-packed remake of the Patrick Swayze weeper Ghost. A mildly effective dramatic scene at Reynolds’ funeral is followed — seconds later, mind you — by a sight gag based upon the fact that “normal” humans see Bridges’ character as Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Marisa Miller. Even the humor can’t decide what it’s supposed to be. In one scene Bridges will be trying to draw laughs by delivering complicated dialogue in his gruff accent, and another scene will turn upon slapstick violence.

R.I.P.D. doesn’t succeed as an effects-driven action film, because the effects have no weight. The grotesque deados are no more than cartoon characters, their bodies not even pretending to obey the laws of physics. The excessive use of computer-generated camera zooming punishes the eyes and leaves no time to process what is going on during the action sequences. The big climax comes down to a fistfight between Reynolds and Bacon, which is thoroughly pointless since the movie has long since established that Reynolds can take an infinite beating because he is already dead!

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It was probably Bridges who was able to get the movie made, especially after displaying his marshal’s accent in True Grit. Not even a crusty Texan like Tommy Lee Jones could liven up this dialogue in the same way while maintaining the screenplay’s macabre sense of humor. But there is a fine line between “carrying a movie on your back” and “shameless mugging,” and it is a line which Bridges can’t stop crossing here. Worse, Reynolds is perfectly willing to let it happen, as in scene after scene he just gets run over by Bridges or Mary-Louise Parker (who has maybe ten minutes of screen time as the RIPD commander).

R.I.P.D. is already projecting as the worst failure of this summer, which is perhaps unfair. Bridges, through his extreme mugging and sheer force of will, animates many scenes of this film in exactly the way that the studio must have hoped he would do. Yet a bomb also seems like the most obvious result in the world when one sets out to make a wacky comedy about murdered cops. Just because those cops are subsequently resurrected doesn’t mean your film will be lively.

-Mark Young

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