Friday, August 2, 2013

Anatomy Of A Box Office Failure, Why Isn’t R.I.P.D. The Next Men In Black?

The Good: Decent acting, Moments of humor, Generally good effects.
The Bad: Very predictable plot/character arcs, Incredibly familiar to anyone who watched both Dead Like Me and Men In Black
The Basics: R.I.P.D. failed to make a splash not because it was bad, but because it was way too familiar to moviegoers.

When it comes to Summer Blockbuster Season, one of the big factors working for movies is hype. The power of hype makes otherwise mundane films into huge successes long before they can end up at gas stations everywhere on DVD in a $5 (or less) bin. The fascinating thing about hype is watching which movies live up to and which films fall completely based on the audience response once that hype is stripped away. Hype before the release, as it so often happens, has almost nothing on word of mouth after the product or film is widely available. One of this summer’s big films that might have been able to use some more hype and certainly did not get much regard from word of mouth, is R.I.P.D..

R.I.P.D. is a pretty simple concept film, based on a Dark Horse comic series. It is worth noting up front that I have not read this particular comic book series, so this review is a very pure one of only the film version of R.I.P.D.. R.I.P.D. is essentially a simple concept: Men In Black (reviewed here!) meets Dead Like Me (reviewed here!). Or, it’s Spawn (reviewed here!) where the protagonist is not a monster and with a bit more in the way of humor. Either way, the concept did not quite land, at least with the summer moviegoing audience. And I, for one, am at a bit of a loss as to explain why.

The Men In Black comparison is not at all a bad one. Ryan Reynolds plays Nick, a corrupt Boston cop who is given the chance to return to Earth after his death to collect runaway souls for the Rest In Peace Department. The R.I.P.D. is basically Men In Black for the undead, as opposed to alien life forms.

Opening with a chase, the protagonist Nick reveals that he now works for the Rest In Peace Department and is part of a world he never knew existed. Flashing back days before where Nick sweetly plants an orange tree for his wife, Nick and his corrupt partner Hayes have a discussion about how they buried some gold from a bust. The two Boston cops are called to take down a notorious drug dealer and cop killer, Garcia, when Hayes turns on his partner and kills him. Sent to, essentially, purgatory, Nick is introduced to the concept of the R.I.P.D. by Proctor, who gives him the choice of taking his chances with divine judgment or joining the R.I.P.D. and repenting for his corrupt ways. Nick joins the force, partners with Roy, an old Western sheriff, and he returns to Boston to execute the will of the R.I.P.D. After witnessing his own funeral, Nick gets to work with Roy.

When their first case turns up some gold, much like Nick buried, Nick becomes suspicious. His suspicions are confirmed that there is a conspiracy between the living and the dead when Hayes turns up to recover the gold Nick buried and he turns it over to a dead man that Roy and Nick then pursue. Recalled to the R.I.P.D. offices, Eternal Affairs reveals that the gold is part of the dismantled Staff Of Jericho. If the Staff Of Jericho is assembled, the dead will rain down upon the Earth and with only a day before Nick and Roy are erased from existence, they set about trying to expose the criminals on Earth who are trying to recover the artifacts to build the Staff.

R.I.P.D. includes several concepts instantly familiar to those who were fans of Dead Like Me. Roy is from a different time and he and Nick have avatars who look exceptionally different from themselves. Nick (Ryan Reynolds) and Roy (Jeff Bridges) look like an old Chinese man and a hot blonde starlet, respectively. They have the ability to see the undead (whom Roy refers to as “deadoes”) and the undead reveal themselves to the officers and are not particularly thrilled about being recalled to the afterdeath. The relationship between Nick and Roy is, sadly, remarkably like the one between Kay and Jay.

There are some nice differences between Men In Black and Dead Like Me and R.I.P.D., like the way Indian food (it’s probably the cumin!) exposes the deadoes and transforms them into monsters. The film has quite a bit more action than Dead Like Me and the main narrative of this film is much tighter than Men In Black. Instead of really rambling around the new, larger world that Nick discovers, his death is deeply tied to the world of the undead. Bobby Hayes is the mortal villain, something which Kevin Bacon almost instantly telegraphs with his performance, and his evolution into the undead villain occurs very organically, making for an enjoyable progression. The events leading up to the undead jailbreak happen in a reasonable progression that is very entertaining.

Also R.I.P.D. is smart enough to address some of the big questions viewers might have. When the exposition about the Staff Of Jericho is presented, Roy’s question is very smartly, “why would somebody make this thing?!” McGuffins are good, but so many of them make no rational sense for why they would exist. The only real question R.I.P.D. leaves dangling is why the Department would be so stupid as to store all of the recovered gold together (whatwith reassembling the Staff being the goal of the villains!).

Jeff Bridges delivers a familiar performance as Roy. This role is remarkably similar to his performance in True Grit (reviewed here!) and Ryan Reynolds delivers nothing we have not already seen from him as Nick, but the two play off one another well for a good buddy action/comedy movie feel. Supporting parts from Robert Knepper, Mary-Louise Parker, Kevin Bacon and Stephanie Szostak are ably presented, though none stand out as exceptional for the talents involved.

The special effects do save R.I.P.D. from being considered completely mundane. The familiar narrative and performances do not look the same as in every other, similar, genre film. Still, it is easy to see why the film did not explode at the box office. R.I.P.D. is good, but hardly original and even during Summer Blockbuster Season, we want to see something that at least feels fresh.

For other works with Robert Knepper, check out my reviews of:
Heroes - Season Four
Prison Break - Season 1
"Dragons Teeth" - Star Trek: Voyager
“Haven” - Star Trek: The Next Generation


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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