REVIEW: R.I.P.D. (2013)

Finally out in the UK, is this big-budget flop with Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds actually worth a look? 

In a nutshell, 2013’s R.I.P.D. is two parts Men in Black and one part Ghostbusters, bringing about a summertime blockbuster that’s entertaining but astonishingly unoriginal. Adapted from the Dark Horse comic of the same name, bad press has enveloped the film from its very earliest stages, with prognosticators making R.I.P.D. out to be an unmitigated disaster. Though it turned out to be a box office failure, the movie itself is far better than anticipated; a well-made action-comedy that does an admirable job of making its premise work despite being a blatant MiB clone. It’s not a great movie by any stretch – it’s not even essential viewing – but it is an enjoyable romp in the moment, thanks mainly to the smooth filmmaking as well as the exceedingly entertaining performance from Jeff Bridges.

A Boston police officer, Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) is in a tough financial bind, stealing a stash of gold during a drug raid to help create a secure future with his wife Julia (Stephanie Szostak). In a shootout, Nick is double-crossed by his long-time partner Bobby Hayes (Kevin Bacon), resulting in his death. Whisked up into the sky, Nick lands in the office of Mildred Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker), who offers the overwhelmed corpse a chance to join the R.I.P.D. (Rest in Peace Department). An afterlife police force, the R.I.P.D. are charged with apprehending “Deados” – the evil spirits who have found their way back to Earth. Paired up with old-school lawman Roy Pulsipher (Bridges), Nick seeks to reconnect with Julia and continue his life. Problem is, he can only access the real world via an avatar; Nick resembles an old Chinese guy (James Hong), while Roy looks like an attractive supermodel (Marisa Miller). While prowling the streets for Deados, Nick and Roy begin to uncover a plot involving ancient artefacts that has the potential to cause all dead spirits to return to Earth.

Undertaking great pains to build a narrative that avoids further Men in Black comparisons, writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi instead pursue a painfully clichéd plot that fails to take full advantage of the admittedly promising set-up. From the very beginning, all of Nick and Roy’s exploits are intrinsically tied to the central villainous plot, which just so happens to relate back to things that Nick did right before his death, and coincidentally involves Nick’s murderer, who just so happens to want to sleep with Nick’s widow, hence the story will give Nick a chance to complete his unfinished business and get closure with Julia. Its standard-order fluff, reducing the story’s scope and scale, and making a sprawling world of possibilities feel really small and full of coincidences. Added to this, Proctor has a huge file on Nick and apparently knows everything about him… except for the stuff that’s relevant to the case. How convenient.

Against all odds, R.I.P.D. does manage to stay afloat and entertain, predominantly due to the sharp dialogue which facilitates a steady stream of laughs throughout. Also beneficial is director Robert Schwentke, finally demonstrating a strong grasp on the art of fun blockbuster filmmaking after the 2010 dud Red. The action sequences are satisfying here as well, though Schwentke is not quite as skilled at action-comedy as Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld. R.I.P.D. runs a slender ninety minutes, which works in its favour since it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Schwentke keeps the film chugging along at an agreeably brisk pace, with colourful photography and attractive technical specs keeping the proceedings very watchable. However, the Deados were implemented with unconvincing CGI, detracting a sense of urgency from the action scenes. MiB used puppets, make-up and animatronics, which look a whole lot better than the ugly computer creations here. All of the Deados here could’ve easily been achieved practically to superior effect.

Schwentke’s secret weapon is Bridges, who clearly relished the opportunity to play this role. He is the lifeblood of R.I.P.D., speaking in a cartoonish western twang and delivering one-liners with utmost confidence and spot-on comedic timing. Bridges is broad, loud and showy, but he’s very charismatic, adding plenty of flavour and comic spark. It’s difficult to imagine what the movie would have been like if Bridges wasn’t in it. Alongside him, Reynolds is fairly good, too, essentially playing the straight-man role but also finding time for quips and comedy. The pairing of Reynolds and Bridges is clearly inspired by Men in Black, but the two share a terrific dynamic. Kevin Bacon looks to be on autopilot here, but he provides solid support nonetheless, while Mary-Louise Parker (looking especially sexy) is colourful as Nick and Roy’s superior.

Perhaps walking into R.I.P.D. with low expectations is precisely why I enjoyed it so much. It’s disposable blockbuster cinema at its core, but it’s very watchable and often entertaining, with a high level of energy and an attractive visual style (shoddy CGI notwithstanding) making it a smooth ride. And it ends on a high note, with a great final joke that left this reviewer satisfied. It does set up a sequel, but it seems very unlikely that an R.I.P.D. 2 will ever come to pass, judging by the film’s catastrophic box office performance. Oh well.

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