In real life, bureaucratic systems are the only workable state-citizen interface we’ve developed that can handle the sheer bulk of smelly, cranky humanity. In comedies, filmmakers often render the infinite and otherworldly in the mundane, human terms of bureaucracy, with all the waiting rooms, Muzak and impossible regulatory complexities that depiction implies. We can’t really envision an afterlife that isn’t somehow modeled on our own psychic landscape.
So it goes in R.I.P.D. After being shot in the face by fellow crooked cop Kevin Bacon, deceased detective Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) ascends through swirling cloud orifices into the human resources office of the afterlife’s Rest in Peace Department. Mary-Louise Parker explains that, due to his law-enforcement acumen, he’s been recruited for service in the RIPD instead of being consigned to Hell, and she assigns him to veteran officer Roy Pulsifer (lovable old Jeff Bridges), a lawman shot and killed — and then eaten by coyotes — in the 19th century.
Yes, it’s a purgatorial ripoff of the entire plot of Men in Black. The script reverses the principal roles, casting the experienced Roy as the wisecracking loose cannon and rookie Nick as a serious, determined lawman. Bridges endows the insouciant Roy with that voice he does, the one that sounds like he’s got an egg yolk in his mouth and he’s trying not to break it. And Reynolds does a lot of stony glaring.
Unfortunately, the interesting drabness of the afterlife’s police department is paired with the colorless paucity of the film’s heavies—rubbery, monstrous “deados,”—deceased souls who have refused the call of the afterlife and linger on Earth with auras of bad karma causing decay and unhappiness among the living. The menagerie of aliens in Men in Black was usually funny and engaging. The deados, unmemorable CG brutes, spout generic bad-guy dialogue undistinguished by humor or characterization.
Parker’s charisma shines through all the uninspired banter. There’s one pretty funny Steely Dan joke. And the Boston RIPD precinct is staffed with dead cops from hundreds of years of Boston history, all wearing the uniforms of their eras: The existential white of the office bustles with Victorian mustaches, bobby helmets, ’40s-era snap-brim fedoras, close-quarters SWAT gear and cowboy hats. It’s the real world that seems strangely underpopulated, the film’s climactic apocalypse unfurling in empty Boston streets, unwitnessed by anyone who isn’t already dead. How scary is the apocalypse if there’s nobody around for it to scare?
A word to cinematographers: If you know in advance that the studio will push your two-dimensional film through a shitty postproduction 3-D conversion, please turn the fucking lights up on set. The bottom-shelf techniques here exhibit all the worst traits of the format: obvious, View-Master–like image layers with noticeable dimness and low contrast. On the other hand, R.I.P.D. does offer a pretty good idea of what the afterlife might look like to someone suffering macular degeneration.