Film Review: R.I.P.D.

Cops from the afterlife battle a demonic plot to take over the earth in a sci-fi adventure that wants to be 'Men in Black.'

Despite poisonous industry buzz, R.I.P.D. is not an epic disaster. It's also not very fresh or inventive, which can't be good news for a costly production in a season of disappointing releases. Based on a cult comic book, the movie is targeted to sci-fi completists and hardcore Ryan Reynolds fans—not the biggest platform for blockbuster success.

The story opens as Boston cops Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) and Bobby Hayes (Kevin Bacon) lead an attack on a meth lab. The operation is really an excuse for the crooked Bobby to murder Nick, who's decided to go straight.

Nick is transported to the heavens, where R.I.P.D. office functionary Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker, working hard at being playful) offers him a choice: face eternal damnation, or sign on as a cop to defend Earth from "deados," monsters and demons disguised as normal humans. (The "R.I.P.D." initials stand for "Rest in Peace Department.") Nick's new partner will be Roy Pulsifer (Jeff Bridges), a 19th-century lawman with a goatee, a hair-trigger temper, and what sounds like a speech impediment.

Nick wants to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife Julia (Stephanie Szostak), who is now under Bobby's protection. His first case with Roy involves a demon who vomits pieces of gold, a clue to a demonic scheme in which a "Staff of Jericho" will let the dead overrun the planet. When both cops are suspended, they vow to defeat the scheme on their own.

The sense that R.I.P.D. is a knockoff version of Men in Black is overwhelming at times. From the gigantic agent headquarters to the muscle cars, sleek weaponry, copycat monster prosthetics and rehashed buddy-cop banter, R.I.P.D. strains to duplicate the flair and chemistry that flowed so effortlessly from the MIB franchise.

It's not a bad model to follow, and the screenwriters here show occasional flashes of wit. Indian food is Kryptonite for deados, Nick and Roy have alternate physical avatars on Earth (as an elderly Asian man and a hot blonde, respectively), and since the cops can't be killed again they can survive Popeye-level violence.

But where it counts, R.I.P.D. falls short. Nick Walker's background—a cop on the take who's double-crossed by his partner—comes off as trite, not tragic. Ron's past is a mystery, and there's nothing especially memorable about his demise, even though he refers to it repeatedly. The whole Staff of Jericho twist comes out of nowhere, and has no real connection to the characters.

A friendly but bland screen presence, Reynolds has yet to demonstrate that he can carry a film on his own. His performance is earnest instead of nimble, without the swagger the part requires. It's great to see Bridges having fun, but he slurs too many lines and lets his lawman's emotional side slip away. Parker remains in the background; the rest of the cast is no more than adequate.

Director Robert Schwentke (RED) works too hard on scenes that needed a lighter touch and dawdles over strained comic bits. The film's look alternates between gritty cop drama and sci-fi mega-effects, pausing for some ugly 3D vomit and spittle gags. R.I.P.D. can't tell if it's a light, bouncy sci-fi joke or an apocalyptic thriller, and doesn't do justice to either.