God, where do I start? R.I.P.D. seems like a bad idea from the get-go, but there are glimmers along the way of the film it could have been. It opens on Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges chasing a giant, fat, gruesome, personlike CGI … thing that busts through doors and leaps onto the sides of buses. “You think you’ve had a bad day at work? I think I’ve got you beat,” says Reynolds in voice-over, before he’s flattened by a bus.
The film then flashes back several days, when his character, Nick Walker, was just your average corrupt Boston police force veteran. After he’s offed by his even more corrupt partner (Kevin Bacon), Nick lands in the Beyond, where he’s recruited by a fetching, dry-witted celestial administrator type (she’s played by Mary-Louise Parker, but why was I constantly reminded of Flo, the Progressive Insurance lady?) to join the Rest in Peace Department, a divine constabulary tasked with hunting down the dead who are hiding out in the world of the living. Nick has skills they need, and it’s not like he’s been given much of a choice: It’s either this, or “Judgment” — and he is a corrupt cop, after all. As an R.I.P.D. rookie, he’s partnered with veteran Roycephus “Roy” Pulsifer (Bridges), a grizzled frontier marshal who died a century and a half ago in a most unsavory manner, and who doesn’t have much patience for mopey city boys like him.
Anyway, this is the part where you’d think the movie would start to get good, but, alas, no. Nick and Roy chase down some “deados” (that’s what these fugitive undead are called) with their “soul killer” bullets, which when aimed to the head can erase you from the cosmos forever. There are some gags involving the fact that our heroes can’t die (such as the aforementioned Reynolds-flattening). There are a bunch of decent Yosemite Sam–ish Old West anachronisms barked out by Roy. There’s also a pretty good running joke about the fact that our mismatched heroes appear to the living as an even odder couple — Roy looks like a smokin’ hot blonde (Marisa Miller) and Nick looks like an older Asian gentleman (James Hong). This last one is the movie’s cleverest idea, and yet the film barely plays with it beyond cutting to these avatars every once in a while as a brief sight gag. It’s representative of the main problem with R.I.P.D., which is that it doesn’t really go far enough in any direction to work — not as an action flick, nor as a lark.
The models here are clearly Ghostbusters and Men in Black — high-concept sci-fi comic blockbusters — with a bit of Ghost thrown in, but a better example to aim for might have been The Heat, a straight-up comedy whose go-for-broke humor makes up for its uninvolving plot. R.I.P.D. has jokes — it has lots of jokes — but they’re the repetitive kind that get old really quickly. You’d think Bridges would at least get a chance to shine as the growly cowboy, but the performance and the part are so one-note that he seems to get as tired of Roy as we do over the course of the film. It feels more like someone doing a Jeff Bridges impersonation than the real thing. At least Bridges understands that the movie should be one big joke. The less said about the utterly charisma-less Reynolds, the better.
R.I.P.D. was directed by Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, The Time Traveler’s Wife), a normally reliable journeyman with a good eye and a real facility with actors. (In a cruel irony, R.I.P.D. is going up at the box office against RED 2 — a sequel, made by someone else, to Schwentke’s last film.) But saddled with so much CGI and a story that can’t decide how seriously to take itself, not to mention one star who does nothing and another star who just does the same thing over and over again, there isn’t much a director can do. The whole thing seems ill-conceived from the start, unable to keep its parameters simple — think of Ghostbusters and “Don’t cross the streams!” — but also lacking any genuine comic spark or imagination. It’s an exhausting 98-minute ride to nowhere.