Thank heavens — or at least the “Department of Eternal Affairs” — for Jeff Bridges, whose hilariously free-associative performance as a 19th-century frontier marshal-turned-21st-century undead lawman is like an adrenaline shot to the heart of “R.I.P.D.” A generally uninspired mashup of “Ghostbusters” and “Men in Black” (plus a sprinkling of “Big Trouble in Little China”), the film is most notable for having had its obituary written by the press, and even its own studio’s marketing department, well before its release. While the end product still seems all but certain to turn up DOA at this weekend’s box office, the pic itself isn’t quite the calamity some portended, due largely to Bridges, some genuinely impressive visual effects and one of the few running times of the season well under two hours.
Like most of the summer’s other headline-grabbing underperformers (“After Earth,” “White House Down,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Pacific Rim”), “R.I.P.D.” bears the lipstick traces of a hoped-for franchise starter, with a comicbook pedigree, buddy-movie architecture and the nine-figure budget that seems to have become the universally accepted price of doing business in today’s Hollywood. At least it can be said that the money is on the screen here, especially during a Doomsday finale that turns downtown Boston into a kind of Wild West of the living dead. What’s most lacking is that thing only time — not money — can buy: a truly inventive and original script. (Pic was adapted by the “Clash of the Titans” team of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi from Peter M. Lenkov’s Dark Horse comic series.)
Not exactly zombies in the classical sense, the pic’s pesky “deados” are troubled souls who, thanks to the equivalent of a clerical error in the great cosmic filing cabinet, have remained stuck on Earth instead of moving on to heaven or hell. The longer a deado stays in the world of the living, the more trouble it causes; hence the need for the titular Rest in Peace Department, deceased police officers who themselves manage to postpone Judgment Day by rooting out unruly deados, one beastie at a time. Minimum term of service: a century.
New to the force is Reynolds’ Nick Walker, first seen among the living as one of Beantown’s not-quite finest, a 15-year veteran of the force who has recently, in a moment of weakness, stolen evidence from a bust together with his longtime partner, Bobby (Kevin Bacon). When Nick confides that he’s having second thoughts and wishes to turn himself in, Bobby responds sympathetically by putting a bullet through his partner’s face.
At R.I.P.D. central, a busy hive of activity clearly modeled on production designer Bo Welch’s “Men in Black” HQ, Nick finds himself briefed by a world-weary personnel manager (sly, sardonic Mary-Louise Parker in the pic’s answer to Rip Torn’s Agent Zed), then paired with Roy (short for “Roycephus”) Pulsifer, a Stetson-wearing, six-shooter-twirling anachronism played by Bridges as a cross between “True Grit’s” Rooster Cogburn and Yosemite Sam. After that, it’s back to Boston, where Nick and Roy quickly pick up the scent of a deado conspiracy to rebuild an ancient totem (known as the Staff of Jericho) capable of reversing the order of the cosmos and literally making the dead rain down upon the living.
The flimsy setup is basically an excuse for a series of run-ins between the officers and the deados, who walk the streets disguised as humans but whose beastly selves can be lured out (in an amusingly dada conceit) by Indian spices. The elaborate creature transformations can be fun to watch, though none of the deados leave in individual impression on par with, say, “Ghostbuster’”s beloved Slimer. In one of the pic’s promising but underutilized comic ideas, R.I.P.D. officers themselves appear disguised on Earth — a system designed to prevent them from reaching out to former loved ones. For Nick, this means he becomes a doddering old Chinese man (veteran character actor James Hong) waving a banana instead of a gun, while Roy becomes a whiplash-inducing, buxom blonde (supermodel Marisa Miller). But director Robert Schwentke doesn’t seem to have figured out how to make the transitions work visually, and in the end the very game Hong and Miller have perhaps two minutes of screen time between them.
Reynolds, who proved himself a deft comic performer in 2005’s “Just Friends,” is largely confined to the straight-man role here. Bridges, however, hurls himself into Roy with such comic abandon that it’s tough to know how much of the character was there on the page and how much was being invented by the actor himself as he went along. (Certainly, the entire movie has the feel of one in which much was made up on the fly.) Rattling his trap nonstop, with a particular fondness for the gory details of his earthly demise (picked apart by coyotes in the desert), Roy doesn’t suffer fools or new partners gladly, but can turn suddenly fragile if anyone dares criticize him, at one point whipping out a squeezebox and wailing a hilariously maudlin ballad called “The Better Man” (co-written by Bridges and regular Coen brothers collaborator T-Bone Burnett). Like Johnny Depp’s work in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, it’s a performance that seems to say, “Look, I’m here for the payday. You know it. I know it. But as long as I’m here, I’m going to make things interesting for myself.”
Moment by moment, “R.I.P.D.” is diverting enough to keep 8-year-olds — and inner 8-year-olds — entertained as the mercury rises and the A/C struggles to keep up. But the premise, and isolated bits throughout, glimmer with just enough promise to make you wish Joe Dante had directed this in his prime, or anyone with more of a feel for comedy than Schwentke, who brings the same slickly professional but style-less sheen to everything he does, whether claustrophobic thriller (“Flightplan”), romantic melodrama (“The Time Traveler’s Wife”) or ostensible farce.
German lenser Alwin Kuchler’s handsome Boston location shooting fronts a generally solid tech package.