R.I.P.D. was almost definitely pitched as "Men in Black with ghosts.” Both movies are based on niche comic book titles, revolve around supernatural police forces and feature a grizzled older detective partnered with a young, wisecracking rookie. Even the title of the newer film is clearly meant to remind of M.I.B. However, the movie R.I.P.D. reminded me of was Howard the Duck, another big-budget, effects-driven comedy that had a strong cast and a seemingly can’t-miss commercial premise but flopped because, like R.I.P.D., it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a hip, offbeat cult movie, a credible fantasy or a broad comedy aimed at young kids that relied on funny voices and slapstick. I must admit, though, that I’ve always had a soft spot for Howard the Duck; as bad as it is, there’s something endearing about such a talented cast and crew clearly doing everything they can to make a fundamentally misguided premise work. I can’t say the same for R.I.P.D., which is not just poorly made but also cynical, lazy and irritatingly smug; I’d have to go back to The Happening for an example of another big-budget summer movie as catastrophically self-assured, and at least M. Night Shyamalan knows how to compose a shot.
You can feel the screenwriters checking off every plot and character beat they need to hit as the movie goes through the motions introducing us to our lead, cocky young detective Nick (Ryan Reynolds), before he’s soon killed by his corrupt partner (Kevin Bacon) and ends up in the offices of R.I.P.D., a police department that yadda yadda yadda. Nick is soon partnered with Roy (Jeff Bridges), and together they’re soon investigating Nick’s partner and a case involving pieces of stolen gold that blah blah blah. The filmmakers don’t care, so why should you or I? The best example of everything that’s wrong with R.I.P.D. is the moment when Roy makes a reference to “When I’m from” and Nick asks, “When exactly are you from, Roy?” Yes, Ryan Reynolds asks the guy who is dressed like a cowboy, talks like a cowboy and looks like Jeff Bridges in True Grit what time period he’s from. Either this movie is stone cold stupid or it thinks you are. Or both.
The movie relies a lot on CGI spectacle, which is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. The action sequences are not only incoherent but weirdly cartoonish (in a bad way), and the production design of the afterlife is a really poor attempt to mimic the large-scale whimsy of Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam. Worse are the creature designs; the idea is that the undead, in their natural states, are in various stages of deformity and decomposition, but for reasons known only to director Robert Schwentke and his crew, this translates to cartoonish voices, gross plastic-y features that reminded me of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, lots of burps and farts and, in one case, really terrible Elvis Presley impressions. The movie’s concept of the undead is basically what my 4-year-old son would have come up with if he’d been tasked to write this script (Tom’s a sharp kid, but he’s not ready to launch franchises yet). Consider that, in a $150 million movie with wall-to-wall special effects, the most amusing moment consists of Jeff Bridges eating Indian food. Bridges, incidentally, tries his best to make the material work, but it’s a tall order. Reynolds half-asses it, as he usually does.
If R.I.P.D.’s crimes were limited to a failed, lazy premise and poor execution, it would merely be a bad movie. What makes it a truly terrible movie is how obnoxiously self-assured it is; it’s obvious that the filmmakers thought they had a winner on their hands, even as it’s hard to imagine how any draft of this screenplay could have inspired such confidence. A joke like Roy mentioning that his body was eaten by coyotes isn’t really funny the first time; by the time the movie calls back the joke for the fourth or fifth time, it’s really goddamn annoying. About 50% of the jokes in the movie are like that. It’s like being trapped in a room with Sam MacMurray’s character from Raising Arizona as he struggles to tell a Polish joke. Meanwhile, the idea that Bridges and Reynolds are in disguise and look, to the living, like a tall, attractive woman and James Hong is a setup without a punchline. The idea of Ryan Reynolds looking like an old Chinese man was apparently thought to be so gut-bustingly hilarious that no further jokes were needed. Hong’s presence in the movie reminded me of Big Trouble in Little China, which I rewatched a few nights ago. There was a movie that understood that its fantastic effects and creature designs were nothing without well-drawn characters to bring them to life; Carpenter’s film demonstrates that you can go as absurd and over-the-top with the story as you like, as long as you’ve created a context through the characters and the world of the film that gives the audience a reason to stay invested. The makers of R.I.P.D. would have done well to study Big Trouble in Little China, or Ghostbusters or, yes, Men in Black, or any of the supernatural comedies that got it right. That’s probably too much to ask from a movie that thinks we don’t know that cowboys are from the Old West. This movie is horseshit.