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Entries in R.I.P.D. [2013] (1)

Friday
Jul262013

R.I.P.D. (2013)

Rumors of This Film's Suckiness Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

I've taken a lot of flack lately for my harsh stance on geekdom's reaction to Pacific Rim. My back is knotted up from ducking all the accusations of unfairness, cavalier comments, and sweeping generalizations about groups of people I've probably never met. It gives me no joy to be in this lonely position, but I stand by every word I've written against that rotten excuse for a movie and its ardent fans. I can't help it if you take such things personally, and am happy to show you the door. (Hint: look for the left-facing arrow on your browser).

Having cleared that up, I'm going to address the three remaining people in my audience. Listen, and listen well: If you liked/loved/worshipped Pacific Rim, but didn't like/hated/avoided R.I.P.D., you may, in fact, be an idiot. Worse than that, you may be a dishonest smart person.

Now that we're officially alone (honestly, you were always my favorite), I'll admit that last line was a bit much--but you'll be hard-pressed to find evidence of its inaccuracy. Compare critical reaction to R.I.P.D. versus Pacific Rim at, say, Rotten Tomatoes,* and you'll find more than a few people disparaging Robert Schwentke's new movie for its lack of originality; lame dialogue and lamer characters; and overall sun-scorched brainlessness. Two weeks ago, many of these same commenters praised Pacific Rim as a stunning summer entertainment--despite its lack of originality, lame dialogue and lamer characters.

It's easy to write off R.I.P.D. as "Men in Black with dead people", but keep these two things in mind: Men in Black was a really good film, and the deceased-character angle leaves the door wide open for a brand-new component; namely, a dramatic emotional core. Like much of Tarantino's filmography, the laughs here are incidental to the gravity of a seriously weird, seriously dangerous alternate reality.

Ryan Reynolds plays Nick, a Boston cop who's fatally betrayed by his corrupt partner, Hayes (Kevin Bacon), during a meth lab raid. Instead of going to heaven or hell, Nick is recruited by the Rest in Peace Department, a netherworld network of history's greatest crimefighters. Their mission: to patrol the Earth and reclaim evil souls who've slipped through the cracks of an overcrowded corpse processing system. They're like benevolent cenobites from the Hellraiser series.

Nick is paired with Roy (Jeff Bridges), a crusty 1880s lawman who shows him the ropes. Together, they scour Boston for seemingly regular folks that morph into multi-eyed, rampaging rage monsters at the first sign of Indian food (that wasn't a typo). When one of their perps drops a fragment of a golden artifact, Nick gets spooked: it looks suspiciously like some relics he and Hayes once lifted from a crime scene in the hopes of getting rich.

Yes, Nick was also corrupt, and his trying to edge back from the darkness ultimately got him killed. But he soon learns that penitence isn't always met with cosmic forgiveness. He watches in horror as Hayes moves in on his ex-wife, Julia (Stephanie Szostak), and it's here that we realize R.I.P.D. is also a new spin on the movie Ghost. Will Nick overcome the universe's clever barriers that prevent the dead from reconnecting with their loved ones? Will Hayes turn out to be pivotal in a scheme that will reverse the flow of souls from Earth to the after-life? Will Roy prove to have a heart of gold underneath that rough, redneck exterior?

The answer to all of these questions is, "Of course!" And, "Maybe". Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's screenplay leaves much to be desired, plot-wise, in the Stuff We Haven't Seen department. From the villain-who-gets-captured-on-purpose, to the otherworldly-vortex-opening-up-over-the-city, to the CGI-creatures-getting-chased-down-by-superheroes (which is essentially what Nick and Roy are), the movie gets dragged down by material that's been cut-and-pasted from other, better stories. What makes the material really interesting is that it's one-third comedy, and two-thirds not-that-grim-'n-gritty cop-and-relationship drama, with supernatural elements blanketing the whole thing. That's a tough sell for a would-be tent pole picture, which may be why it's being marketed as Men in Black lite.

A side note on this film's monsters: these are the cheapest, most rubber-limbed and weight-free beasties I've seen in a major motion picture in quite awhile. With the exception of the portal between worlds, it looks like R.I.P.D.'s effects budget was funded by the production design department's couch change.

If the only reason you go to movies like this is to be wowed by computer-generated monsters that, for some reason, you couldn't imagine on your own, you'll likely be disappointed. If, like me, your enjoyment hinges on characters, dialogue, and ideas (with cool creature design being incidental, at best), you may just have a blast with R.I.P.D.

The acting is top-notch. Reynolds sets aside his smirking hot-shot thing here and displays a refreshing vulnerability. Nick carries the weight of his death throughout the movie, not laughing off his predicament in Will Smith fashion--even though, according to the template, he's the Will Smith character. The actor has had a hard time at the box office lately, but the failings of Turbo and The Green Lantern can't be pinned on him any more than the success of Despicable Me 2 can be attributed solely to Steve Carrell's voice work.

Bridges looks like he's having the time of his life on-screen, and the energy's infectious. Sure, he might as well be playing the ghost of Rooster Cogburn, but that's half the fun of his performance. He revels in Roy's exuberance at being a set-in-his-ways cowboy who can't get over his own death. When the movie strays too far into formulaic blockbuster territory toward the end, the actor keeps everything grounded with a befuddled bemusement that lets us know it's okay to find the whole thing ridiculous. His chemistry with Reynolds is a playful take on the straight-man/goof-ball dynamic, with the rookie playing things by a book he only thinks he knows, and the seasoned vet enjoying the ride all the way to the apocalypse.

R.I.P.D. is a mixed bag, but one I highly recommend that you open and enjoy. Thanks to the ghastly CGI, I can't, in good conscience, call it a big-screen experience. But there's more heart, imagination, and ambition on display here than in many would-be summer blockbusters--certainly Pacific Rim.

There I go again, beating up on Guillermo Del Toro. Sorry, I'm irked to no end about the double standard certain moviegoing audiences apply to big, dumb movies. I don't understand how one film gets a critical pass because "it's just about giant robots fighting giant monsters", while another gets panned and/or written off because it's allegedly silly and unoriginal.

My adherence to (an admittedly work-in-progress) critical consistency prevents me from relying on pedigree and special effects when assessing a movie's quality. I'll see anything, armed with an open mind and an open heart, even if I'm leery at the outset. I shudder to think of how many great little gems I might have missed by thinking, "I'll skip [X]. It just looks like a crappy remake of [X]". There are a lot of crappy remakes, retreads, and rip-offs littering the cinematic landscape--but R.I.P.D. is not one of them.

*If you don't care about critical opinion, A) Bravo, and B) the same experiment will work on your moviegoing friends.