by Matt Smith
Jeff Bridges has grown increasingly adventurous as a performer. I don’t mean that he’s never been into weirder roles and bizarre portrayals, but as he has gotten older, he has certainly taken a number of relatively high profile jobs that call on his considerable acting chops to even make them possible. Take his turn as Iron Man villain Obadiah Stane. The part was rife with cliché and was telegraphed out at the beginning of the film. And yet Bridges managed to make him a character that I found interesting. In The Men Who Stare at Goats he plays meditation/mind-reading guru Bill Django as a loose variation on The Dude, his beloved character from The Big Lebowski. And in True Grit he took the iconic Rooster Cogburn, a role which netted John Wayne an Oscar, and made him wholly his own through an amalgam of Old West reality (that mumble and tired run-down swagger) and post-modern revisionism (he’s oddly self-aware, some of which is in the novel, but Bridges being able to perform this is simply stunning).
So here he is in another comic book movie, this time as its star. He plays Roy Pulsipher, a curmudgeonly law man not too far removed from ol’ Rooster Cogburn. Roy was killed in the 1860s and took up his position at the Rest In Peace Department where he hunts down and kills Deados, the undead who have escaped judgement and are in hiding on Earth. He’s teamed up with newcomer Nick (Ryan Reynolds), through whom we are introduced to the R.I.P.D. and its mission. Nick is killed during a drug raid by his crooked partner Hayes (Kevin Bacon), and is recruited upon his death into the department before going to judgement. If you’re thinking this set-up is a little too close to Men in Black’s odd pairing of veteran Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and rookie Jay (Will Smith) all the way back in 1994, then you’re right. R.I.P.D. is a rip-off not just on screen, but also in its original form as a comic book.
Mary-Lousie Parker plays Proctor, a desk officer who shares a past with Roy, and she shows up periodically to give voice to the system and provide some exposition. She explains the whole concept to Nick upon his arrival to the afterlife, and is also the conduit through which he and Roy receive their orders. And honestly, any time Parker shows up, I’m excited. I just love her. Before long, Roy and Nick uncover a plot to reverse the portal through which souls are collected, which will unleash the dead back on Earth. They are pulled from the case by Eternal Affairs, but in true fashion, the two detectives push on with their investigation anyway, ultimately confronting the big bad who is behind it all.
You know, if that first Men in Black film hadn’t been a hit in 1994, I’d wager that R.I.P.D. would receive a pretty warm welcome. It’s fun and quirky and it holds an audience’s attention. There’s also a significant amount of chemistry between Bridges and Reynolds that I rather enjoyed. They’re a pretty good comic duo. Between Roy’s non-stop chatter and windbaggedness and Nick’s straight-faced seriousness, it’s like watching Smith and Jones in their prime, but less annoying because we don’t have the knowledge of two more films burdened by the same shtick. Just to end this comparison right here and now, I’ll go on the record as saying this is a better Men in Black film than both of the sequels were.
The film is awash in CGI monsters, which is a bit grating at first (I still don’t understand why using CG is more appealing than just putting some make-up on an actor, aside from budget), but I warmed up to it as the movie became more and more comic book-y and less realistic. By the time there are swarms of them running through Boston, I had totally forgotten how distracting the first Deado’s jiggling gargantuan belly had been at the beginning of the movie. The sci-fi action is pretty fun and overall the film has a light-heartedness that should be well received by most audiences. There are the epic stakes of the world’s imminent doom at play, but this is the type of film you know the two heroes will come through in the end.
I will also say that I liked that the world of the undead and the afterlife in general was as well thought-out and articulated in the film. From the weapons the officers use to their ability to walk around in the real world without attracting attention from friends and relatives who might recognize them (they have avatars in reality), there were nice touches throughout that were really paid attention to by the screenwriters and which the actors pulled off nicely. The officers’ avatars provide one of the film’s biggest recurring jokes, with Roy being an extremely attractive blonde woman and Nick being an elderly Chinese man, and there are some really odd lines that both Bridges and Reynolds are forced to utter solely because other characters cannot see who they really are. This I liked quite a bit, if only due to the fact that it’s actually pulled off and isn’t just a tossed out single use joke.
Overall R.I.P.D. isn’t breaking any new ground, but it’s an enjoyable enough diversion, particularly if you’re a fan of Bridges. He’s a hoot and a half, and it seems like he’s having the time of his life just letting it all hang out. Yes, I just said “hoot and a half.”
3 stars out of 5.