Universal Pictures decided way before R.I.P.D. hit theaters in mid-July that the movie was destined to fail; it had already pushed it back several times from its original January 2012 release date. The studio stripped the movie adaptation of Peter M. Lenkov’s Rest in Peace Department comic of nearly all of its marketing budget; at $130 million for production alone, it was already going to take a big write-down. That more or less set the narrative: R.I.P.D. was garbage, the studio was ashamed of it, and moviegoers shouldn’t bother seeking it out. It ended up taking in just $33 million in the U.S. and $78 million worldwide.
It is ludicrous to call anything done to those in the über-first world of Hollywood an “injustice,” but, on such a sliding scale, the treatment of R.I.P.D. certainly qualifies as unfortunate mistreatment.
Summer 2013 was a test case for Hollywood studios that now make a large majority of their profits off of expensive, blockbuster action films. There were a couple big hits within the Iron Man and Fast & Furious franchises, but the season mostly lacked the crazy-anticipated, years-in-the-making culminations like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises that guarantee billions in box office returns. Thus, studios were forced to try to manufacture new, lucrative features, and in doing so, tested just how eager the moviegoing public was to pay high prices for broadly sketched characters and big, computerized explosions.
There were some successes: Man of Steel, World War Z, and Pacific Rim (which fell flat stateside, but scored $300 million abroad) all were considered wins for the studios, even if they weren’t huge critical favorites. But there were also several painful flops — The Lone Ranger was a bloated mess that was derided as a bad Western version of Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean; and the combination of M. Night Shyamalan and Will and Jaden Smith made After Earth a gigantic punchline when it fell face-first.
R.I.P.D., on the other hand, was quietly pronounced DOA, kicked around for a few days, and then promptly forgotten. But it deserved better.
The film features Ryan Reynolds as Nick, a morally troubled Boston cop. When he’s gunned down by his partner Bobby (Kevin Bacon), he’s offered a chance at salvation: Instead of facing eternal judgment, he can join an underworld police corps (the cleverly titled Rest in Peace Department), where he can roam the earth…appearing to living humans as an old Asian man. He begrudgingly accepts, and is partnered up with a foul-mouthed sheriff from the Old West named Roy, played by Jeff Bridges, who inhabits the physical perfection of real-life Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Marisa Miller.
The two set off to patrol troublemaking escaped spirits called Deados, while Nick tries to cope with missing his wife and the consequences of the robbery that turned the crooked Bobby against him. Sure, it’s ridiculous, and yes, it was criticized for being similar to the plot of Men in Black (a recently revived franchise that benefits from the grandfathered glow of ’90s nostalgia). But then again, Iron Man’s Tony Stark is basically a suave Steve Jobs in a fleet of custom-built flying suits, and director Zack Snyder made Superman an alien Jesus figure in Man of Steel.
The first mistake Universal made with R.I.P.D. was assuming that it could penetrate the perplexing world of fanboy entertainment; comic book fans take the big-screen adaptations of characters and stories that they’ve cherished for years on paper deadly seriously, no matter how unbelievable they may seem.
And that’s unfair and unfortunate, because R.I.P.D., even more so than the Iron Man franchise and the new Superman, can be appreciated on several different levels. Not all of them may have been purposely engineered, but that’s the beauty of film: Its ownership is transferred from director to audience the moment it hits the screen.
As ushered in by Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, blockbuster films have become not just serious business, but serious entertainment. Joss Whedon injected some laughs into The Avengers and Robert Downey Jr. has made Tony Stark a charming cad, but “gritty reboot” has become the exhausted logline on summer movies over the past half-decade. World War Z was a grim apocalyptic tale, despite Brad Pitt’s long locks and trackstar zombies, while not even Simon Pegg could save J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek into Darkness from becoming “mysterious” and self-important to the point of parody.
The plot of R.I.P.D., on the other hand, is an intentionally silly version of those other comic book adaptations. A gold pendant (which looks like it came from Legends of the Hidden Temple) that Nick and Bobby steal from a drug bust (which is the sin that forces Nick into underworld police service) is actually an ancient artifact that will help open the gate that keeps the demons off of this planet; Nick and Roy have to stop Bobby — who (surprise!) is a Deado — from raising hell on Earth. As in every blockbuster, the planet is in peril, and only our heroes can save it.
Still, R.I.P.D. is the absolute opposite of the navel-gazing, dark-paletted destruction porn meant to stroke the egos of sensitive fanboys. It is kitschy, preposterous, and well aware that it exists in a bizarro world; there is a giddiness about much of its ludicrousness, which includes a shape-shifting demon that looks like Fat Bastard from Austin Powers 2 (played by Devin Ratray, aka Buzz from Home Alone!) who climbs up buildings with his ass hanging out.
It seems like director Robert Schwentke had to know that so much of what he was committing to digital film was absurd because his characters admit as much.
And Jeff Bridges gives a performance that is one part Lebowski, one part True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn, and one part What the fuck? With the Oscar pressure obviously off his back (after winning in 2010 for Crazy Heart), Bridges just dives into the part of a stubborn 1800s Western lawman, concocting some sort of off-brand drawl that spews from his lips that are otherwise packed with acid-tinged chewing tobacco. He twirls his thick gray mustache and spins stories about his human corpse being skull-fucked by coyotes; he is extra revoltingly sloppy as he gleefully stuffs his gullet full of Indian food, because cumin and similar traditional spices inexplicably draw the Deados out of their human form.
Bacon also seems to be reveling in the outrageousness of the material, with his thick Boston accent and smarm-drenched performance. He’s always made for an especially creepy heel, and his double-crossing Boston detective in R.I.P.D. may be the overlooked summit on that mountain of asshole acting.
Meanwhile, Mary-Louise Parker makes the most out of her police administrator role, playing it with a droll sexiness that’s fitting, considering her uniform looks like the product of a go-go dancer and dominatrix teaming up to outfit a traffic warden.
Admittedly, Reynolds looks sort of miserable throughout the film, but that’s the straight man character, who, after all, was just murdered. He also delivers incredulousness with surprising comedic honesty.
These sort of all-in performances are a gift in the summer-event movie genre, injecting some much-need personality into a season of wooden characters. If the screenplay offers a clunky story, it compensates with some solid quips and one-liners, avoiding the exposition-filled exchanges that beat audiences over the head with complicated details.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another blockbuster film that has a line like this: “You are just going to have to learn to sit on your regret and pain until it becomes a dull and persistent ache — the way I do it, the way a man does it,” as Bridges utters in the middle of the second act.
One of the major criticisms of R.I.P.D. focused on its very lackluster CGI work, and there is no real defense for visuals that sometimes look like computer-generated claymation. It’s baffling to know where the film’s $130 million budget was spent; short of “$60 million was quietly donated to charity,” there’s no real good answer.
That said, they were also animating goofy, obese demons; realism was clearly not a top priority. There were some very cool visuals — a few arcade-like zooms during a gun fight, and one well-rendered exploding warehouse that looked like a 3D Lethal Weapon scene frozen in time. Besides, the rough character graphics weren’t bad enough to take you out of the movie, and they’re far more excusable than the way, conversely, many blockbusters have relied on massive special effects to make up for aching gaps in story and character; Man of Steel, for example, boasted an immersive version of Krypton and something called “The World Engine” that was well-animated, but that didn’t make the movie any more interesting.
Ultimately, all the impressively animated movies that came out this summer will look outdated within a few years; and R.I.P.D. is just campy ahead of time.
As I’ve admitted, R.I.P.D. has a rather silly story, but I’d argue that its moral dilemmas are more gray and its subtext more intriguing than anything we saw this summer. What we learned from Man of Steel is that it’s OK to watch on for years as people you could save are killed, and it’s fine to sacrifice an entire city in a war that wouldn’t have started had you not come to Earth in the first place; World War Z taught us that one man with great hair can save the world; and the only message After Earth sent is that Will Smith should stop trying to make his children celebrities.
Meanwhile, R.I.P.D. is all about sacrificing for others, dealing with the consequences of your sins, and coping with watching the one you love move on right in front of your helpless eyes. Nick tries to convince his wife that he is still around while appearing to her as an old Asian man, and though that sounds bizarre and lightens the moment, letting someone go is a difficult thing to do. As a viewer, you might even find yourself trying to concoct a speech that might win Nick his wife’s heart once again.
I’m not arguing that R.I.P.D. is a great movie, because of course, as a summer flick, it’s flawed in many places. But it’s also an oasis of fun in the desert of self-seriousness that blockbusters have become, irreverent and distinct where others are hallowed and repetitive. Also, though I’m not endorsing drugs, substances would only enhance this trip. And there are enough insane gimmicks to provide fodder for plenty of audience games. You can watch R.I.P.D. with friends and booze and have a good time, which, really, is all you really want in a movie sometimes, right?