By Inkoo Kang
Perhaps the most fun that can be derived from the inept action-comedy R.I.P.D. is identifying which movies it borrows from. Men in Black is certainly its greatest creditor, having lent its new guy/old guy dynamic and its mission of nabbing strange-looking trespassers. Director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler’s Wife, Red) might as well send Tim Burton a fruit basket (or maybe a bag of striped socks) for letting him filch Beetlejuice’s vision of the afterlife as a hellishly Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Jeff Bridges definitely owes an I.O.U to the Coen brothers for recreating his Rooster Cogburn character from True Grit here, from the old-timey facial hair down to the dusty, worn-out boots.
In fact, R.I.P.D. is so busy trying to be other movies that it never bothers to create a cohesive self. Pastiche can be invigorating on its own terms (see Tarantino, Quentin), but R.I.P.D. comes across as Frankenstein’s Monster, unskillfully sewn together from various, incongruous pieces, a stinking mess that’s unpleasant to look at, brought into existence by a guy who has no idea what he’s doing. Yet in spite of all these cribbings, the film is still more premise than story, its universe a messy doodle than a believable place.
The high-concept film begins with Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds), a corrupt Boston police officer, getting shot in the face by his even more corrupt partner Hayes (Kevin Bacon). He’s immediately spirited to the skies and lands in a white cube occupied by a sarcastic bureaucrat (Mary-Louise Parker, the one bright spot in the movie despite her try-hard Japanese schoolgirl outfit), who’s the kind of busy bee bored enough with her job to buy a cactus shaped like a dildo to entertain herself. She gives Walker a choice: he can go directly to his Day of Judgment – though given his former profession as a corrupt cop, she doesn’t like his chances – or rack up a few brownie points by joining the Rest in Peace Department, where he’ll work as a bounty hunter in search of “dead-o’s” that have managed to sneak back into the world of the living.
Since returning to Earth is the only way he’ll ever see his wife (Stephanie Szostak in role as disposable as a Kleenex) again, Walker jumps at the chance to join the Life-Death Border Patrol. Unfortunately for him – and really, this is the only time in the movie that you feel bad for the guy – he gets partnered with Roy Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges in easily the most irritating role the actor has ever played), the kind of wizened fool who thinks he’s a maverick but is really a show-off. Pulsipher was a marshal in the 1800s, and Bridges gets one inspired riff on how painful a 19th-century bullet is compared to a modern one, but the script otherwise wastes their 200-year generation gap with unfunny jokes about shapely ankles.
Back on Earth, Walker and Pulsipher can be seen – and therefore interact with – the living. But they’re perceived as an elderly Asian man and a blond hottie – the kind who’s supposed to be dazzlingly gorgeous but actually looks like she’s one more dispiriting receptionist job away from joining a Real Housewives franchise. As with many of the film’s gags, this case of mistaken identity is repeated ad infinitum, each time less funny, unless there’s something hilarious about looking Asian that I’m missing.
Eventually, Walker’s instincts lead him into a bigger investigation than just shooting random dead people in the head. It ties back to his old partner Hayes in a genuinely surprising twist, but the film is so intent on squeezing in as many shootouts and car crashes after that reveal that it neglects to put those spectacles in any sort of meaningful context, or even explain why the heavenly powers would be so unmoved by an impending apocalypse that Officers Douche and Moustache have to save the world alone.
Neither Reynolds nor Bacon are remotely convincing as cops, not least because they’re dressed like movie stars throughout the movie, in black tees and artfully weathered leather jackets. But it’s difficult to blame the actors when the script has composed the characters so poorly. Reynolds shows flashes of life when Walker finally loses patience with Pulsipher’s chatty condescension and (verbally) goes for the old-timer’s jugular, but his character is ultimately too constrained by having to be “likable” to be cohesive, let alone compelling.
Moreover, the script never gives Walker a chance to redeem himself – even though that’s the whole point of the movie – because he never stops being a dirty cop. Pulsipher is introduced as the squad’s most violent enforcer, the kind of self-righteous, trigger-happy Dirty Harry-wannabe who doesn’t really care whether the means justify the end. In a variation from formula that only makes sense in a nihilistic universe, Walker proves himself a “better” man not by becoming a better cop, but, thanks to Pulsipher’s influence, a worse one.
As in last month’s The Heat, we’re supposed to laugh and empathize with authority figures that abuse power by, for example, pulling off a suspect’s arm and beating him in the face with it. (The film’s violence is cartoonish enough to deserve its PG-13 rating). Even more morally uncomfortable is the fact that Walker is given a chance for redemption – again, for being a terrible person in life – while his would-be captives receive no such opportunity. It’s an ethical inconsistency the film elides by having the Judgment-escapers look like lumpy, rotting potato-human hybrids. If they’re ugly, they’re not really people who deserve our sympathy, right? And they say Hollywood’s morally bankrupt.
See now, see it later, or run in the other direction? Run! Run away as if an unfunny, undead cop was chasing you.