R.I.P.D., an action comedy about undead cop buddies starring Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds, is getting some good advance buzz as a front-runner for the single worst movie of 2013. It’s currently at a pitiful 12 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and those few critics who did bother to review it have called it “terribly made from stem to stern,” “so bad, it puts other movies’ badness in a new light,” “the worst comic-book adaptation since Jonah Hex,” and “not so much of a movie as it is a movie-like substance.”
As adapted by screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi from Peter M. Lenkov’s comic series and directed by Robert Schwentke (Red), R.I.P.D. appears to have been shooting for some sort of wiseass Men in Black buddy-comedy vibe. But with its low-stakes chase scenes, obvious-from-the-get-go villains and nonsensical plotting, this feels more like a 96-minute-long episode of Scooby-Doo that’s been laboriously translated into another language and then back into English. You can almost hear the scritch! of boxes being checked off as tediously familiar elements are introduced one by one: the honest young Boston cop, Nick (Reynolds); his pretty, adoring French wife, Julia (Stephanie Szostak); and the corrupt partner, Hayes (Kevin Bacon) who convinces Nick to join him in stealing some gold they’ve seized in a raid. (If only some of the money spent to convert this movie into muddy-looking, supremely unnecessary 3-D had been diverted to the props budget, maybe the gold pieces—which later become important to the plot—would look less like spray-painted chunks of gravel.) The next day at work, Nick tells Hayes he’s planning to report the gold to their superiors and come clean. No problem, bro, responds Hayes mildly, making it clear to anyone who’s ever seen a movie that he’ll be doing his partner in at the first available opportunity.
That opportunity comes during the next big drug bust, when Hayes takes advantage of the confusion to send Nick through that great digitally animated swirling cloud-funnel in the sky. But instead of heaven or hell, Nick winds up in the law-keeping purgatory of the title, the Rest in Peace Department, where deceased cops who did wrong during their lifetimes are sentenced to centuries-long stints back on earth as undercover agents. There’s some promise to a scene in which Nick’s papers are processed by a dryly efficient officer at the R.I.P.D.’s front desk (played by Mary-Louise Parker with one of this movie’s few hints of zing). But the imaginary world that this scene hints at, a Beetlejuice-like bureaucracy of undead public servants, is never explored or even reintroduced.
Though he spent 15 years in the force on earth, Nick is condescendingly nicknamed “Rook” by his new partner, the cranky Wild West marshal Roycephus Pulsifer, Roy for short (Jeff Bridges). Their mission: to capture and kill the roving evildoers known as “deados,” who—let me just lay this out as I best understood it—are dead criminals who go around in normal, alive-seeming bodies committing crimes, until such time as they are exposed to the sight of someone eating Indian food (or, in a pinch, just blowing a cloud of cumin on them). Only then do they morph into their true, monstrous selves—not zombies or vampires but big, bloated slobs with flabby wattles and sometimes grotesquely large mouths? And they can only be killed by means of a special glowing white bullet that erases their souls entirely from existence? Oh, and both deados and R.I.P.D. cops can fall from skyscrapers or be run over by buses with no visible damage, which makes all of this movie’s many car chases, fistfights and hanging-from-a-great-height-by-one-hand moments singularly uninvolving.
R.I.P.D. has one promising gag (besides its title): the conceit that, as they walk among the living, Roy and Nick are only visible as their undercover “avatars”: in Roy’s case, a cartoonishly sexy buxom blonde (Marisa Miller), and in Nick’s, a self-described “old Chinese guy” (James Hong). There are infinite comic possibilities in the idea of wearing a different racial, gender, or age identity as a disguise, but the film barely nods in their direction. For example, it’s frequently suggested that the grizzled, goateed Roy isn’t above using his hot female avatar’s body as bait to lure bad guys into a trap. So where’s our payoff scene, where a grabby villain suddenly realizes he’s lusting after not a beautiful young woman but a 150-year-old undead male cop? Nowhere, that’s where—it’s as if the screenwriters forgot, between one scene and the next, what tools they had at their disposal.
I wish I could say that the presence of Jeff Bridges, who usually does make everything better, did something to juice up the energy level of the anemic R.I.P.D. But Bridges is uncharacteristically strained and un-Dude-like; he and Reynolds (who can, at his best, be an able comic foil) seem embarrassed by the transparent wan-ness of their own banter. And maybe it’s just the ugly, sloppily animated monsters who are constantly interposing themselves between the leads, but the two actors at times appear to be shooting two different movies, one about a sensitive young cop learning to accept his own mortality, the other about a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy marshal bouncing off high-rise balconies. Both of those movies combined would not be as terrible as this one.
Seeing R.I.P.D. was, however, worth it for one reason: It gave me a peg, however flimsy, on which to hang this year’s Slate summer movies contest. R.I.P.D. is one of those high-concept, low-quality projects that, like Snakes on a Plane, must necessarily exist because its title can be imagined. Can you come up with another portmanteau acronym that brings together sets of significant initials from usually disparate fields of endeavor, use it to title a proposed summer movie, and slap a poster-ready tagline on that sucker? Here are one Slate wit’s sample entries:
Ph.D.O.A.: The murder is unsolved, but this detective has a thesis.
MIAARP: Grandma’s gone missing.
Send your entries to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday at 5:00 p.m. Eastern, using the subject line “summer movie contest 2013.” I’ll write up the best examples in a follow-up column, and bestow upon the best title and tagline a piece of Slate swag worthy of the fine cinematic product that suggested this contest.