R.I.P.D. crashed and burned nearly 10 years ago when it tried to adapt Peter M. Lenkov’s Dark Horse comic for the big screen. Audiences weren’t yet ready for the comic-based lunacy that a movie based around God’s dearly departed police department entailed, even one starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges as unlikely cops from different eras. Though audiences had been coached through the first Phase of the MCU’s Infinity Saga, embracing The Avengers about a year before R.I.P.D. lost millions at the box office, they still hadn’t been introduced to some of the weirder sides of the Marvel universe. The main heroes were still being established with sequels and team-ups; the space pirate freak parade that is the Guardians of the Galaxy was another year away. A movie about an Old West lawman teaming up with a Boston detective—both dead—to stop the machinations of undead Deados…it was a bit too aesthetically and tonally jumbled, not to mention silly, to stand up to the competition.
That makes it all the more strange that, this month, R.I.P.D. 2: Rise of the Damned dropped on VOD and Netflix with absolutely no fanfare. There is no greater sign of acute IP poisoning than indie filmmakers struggling to get anything made while a comic adaptation that didn’t even recoup half its $154M budget (not counting marketing) got a prequel.
Does anyone remember R.I.P.D. fondly? The 12% of critics who reviewed it favorably? The 38% of audiences that didn’t loathe it enough to log into Rotten Tomatoes and vote? The people falling into the latter camp were probably either children at the time of its release or so generous that they’d be trusted with R.I.P.D.’s own angelic weaponry. And, as common wisdom goes with IP, give things a couple decades to percolate and give its audience a couple decades to grow up and bolster a bank account, then return to milk ‘em for time and money. With that formula, audiences can typically be trusted to slurp up whatever slop they remember from their childhoods, which played out accordingly when R.I.P.D. hit Netflix last year and settled firmly into the streamer’s Top 10.
So perhaps that’s what encouraged Universal Home Entertainment to pony up for a Wild West prequel telling the story of Bridges’ character’s first undead rodeo. Why not? Let’s put some more money in Peter M. Lenkov’s pocket, because after the comic creator’s abusive transition to network TV showrunner recently came crashing down, the cruel taskmaster that made one of his stars suicidal could use a couple bucks.
Universal Home Entertainment could do so cheaply—with most of the production team seemingly based in Hungary or Bulgaria—and without any of the original creatives. Bridges has been replaced with Jeffrey “Burn Notice” Donovan and filmmaker Robert Schwentke (still making movies like Snake Eyes) has been substituted by debut director Paul Leyden. Leyden wrote the film with Andrew Klein, who worked in the writers room on MacGyver and co-wrote at least one episode with…R.I.P.D. creator Peter M. Lenkov.
Yep, MacGyver is one of the aforementioned shows that Lenkov was fired from and the one whose star, Lucas Till, was driven to his “breaking point.” Now we’re getting somewhere. It seems plausible that Lenkov and Klein were buddy-buddy and this R.I.P.D. opportunity came about from that toxic work environment. Its dark gamble seems to have worked: R.I.P.D. 2, like its predecessor, now resides in Netflix’s Top 10 despite being a true piece of trash.
The content of R.I.P.D. 2: Rise of the Damned is less ridiculous than its origins. And even then, a movie born of brand-centric filmmaking, cynical IP exploitation and the crony network of a canceled creative is sadly more normal than not—a “wanted” poster representation of what kind of projects see the light of day. But some people made the most of R.I.P.D. 2. There’s a decent amount of silly energy in its performances—especially Donovan’s what-in-tarnation turn—and a sense of self-aware stupidity running throughout the film. Even more shocking is that the ghoulish effects, done by Cinemotion VFX Bulgaria, make smokey demon energy and the nasty undead antagonist look better than the anthropomorphized gruel that DC movies try to convince us are supervillains.
But there’s still some extremely misguided nonsense lurking in the heart of this unlikely resurrection. Joke situations that were tone deaf a decade ago shamble out of their graves, their rotting corpses even less appealing than when their cold bodies were all done up by the morticians.
In R.I.P.D., Reynolds and Bridges don’t look like Reynolds and Bridges to the living world. That would blow their undead cover and cause some serious existential panic amongst the living. So Reynolds’ character looked like the legendary James Hong, at the time a spry 84, and Bridges’ looked like swimsuit model Marisa Miller. The ol’ body swap joke, done a final time in the finale, where Reynolds’ character gets a new look as a headgear-wearing Girl Scout. Pretty innocuous and James Hong got paid, which is always a plus.
But in R.I.P.D. 2, the same rules apply…only it’s set in the Western U.S. in 1876. That means when Donovan’s sheriff and his partner (Penelope Mitchell) walk among the living as two Black women, it’s infinitely more complicated. The movie half-heartedly addresses this, giving Donavan’s ghostly agent of God’s justice some comic dialogue acknowledging that there’s rampant discrimination (“My best friend is Black,” Donovan dryly delivers, “and my daughter…is a woman.”). But the situation, and the film’s attempt to justify it, is needlessly self-sabotaging.
His partner responds to his questions of why their avatars are Black women, making their afterlives much harder, by saying “Maybe the eternal one thought you could learn a thing or two, walking in the shoes of those deemed less advantaged.”
“Deemed less advantaged”...? Yeah, R.I.P.D. 2, this might be one of those situations where you could’ve left well enough alone and your six-shooter wouldn’t have misfired straight into your foot. You’re a direct-to-VOD prequel to a movie nobody liked in the first place: You didn’t have to try anything, let alone this. It’s a bad joke and a worse look, doing Rachel Adedeji and Evlyne Oyedokun—the two talented actors solely asked to be comic relief stemming from their race and gender—dirty. Wearing Black women as costumes, deploying them as punchlines, is deplorable—even more thanks to the white men in charge. R.I.P.D. 2 had problems enough of its own before it started trying to solidify its place alongside movies like Loqueesha and Soul Man by using supernatural blackface.
While R.I.P.D. 2 revels in digging its own grave—ignoring anything interesting that could’ve been explored regarding race, Reconstruction and the Wyoming Territory, either with its two heroes or its “adopted” antihero outlaw played by Jake Choi—it’s shocking that it’s not worse. Considering that it shouldn’t exist at all, it’s almost impressive that it’s just a normal amount bad. R.I.P.D. 2 sounds like a fake DVD hawked as a bootleg on the street, yet it’s a very real movie, and one that moves at a quick enough clip that it’s more watchable than many contemporary blockbusters (even if its racism is more overt than most). Like its big baddie, R.I.P.D. 2 crawled out of Hell’s lowest circle to haunt us once again, but its revival is anything but magical: It’s simply the ungodly return of something that should’ve stayed dead, summoned up from its grave by the necromantic forces currently in charge of almost all mainstream media. When any and all IP is prized over originality, even the most damnable franchises will rise again.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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