Sunday, June 29, 2014

What the hell happened: RIPD

RIPD is one of the few sci-fi movies currently on HBO Go. That's pretty much the reason I watched it (also I may have a weakness for things titled with acronyms). Having seen the trailers, having read the reviews, I knew going into it that it wasn't going to be Bergman. It probably was not going to be good.

Watching RIPD, I could see the pieces that should have fit together. I could imagine the good movie that it could have been. I should have hated it, but I didn't. In fact, the feeling I had at the end was disappointment. There was potential. Potential for a formulaic movie, sure, but at least a solid popcorn movie. What the hell happened?

Spoilers hereafter. (Also, lots of parentheses [and sub-parentheticals].)

It's no secret that marketability gets movies made. And it doesn't take much to think of how RIPD was pitched:

"It's Men in Black, but with zombies instead of aliens."

"Wow! Everyone loves Men in Black, and The Walking Dead gets all the right demographics. Think of the sequels! This is going to make us so much money."

And how the casting went:

"Who are we going to cast in the Will Smith role?"

"Someone with a background in comedy that is inexplicably in action movies. Ryan Reynolds?"

"Brilliant! Who's going to be Tommy Lee Jones?"

"Someone with gravitas, who can be even more curmudgeonly, but also funnier... like if Jeff Bridges gave a performance halfway between True Grit and the Big Lebowski."

And that's pretty much the performance Bridges turns in. Ryan Reynolds turns in his best Will Smith, but without any of the moments of real acting that Smith occasionally produces in this kind of movie (remember Will Smith's movie before Bad Boys?). Despite the paint-by-numbers approach, though, the casting is one of the better-executed aspects of the film; Kevin Bacon does his evil Kevin Bacon thing, and Mary-Louise Parker is surprisingly stand-out despite face work that looks painfully recent.

There are three real problems with this movie.

1. They forgot parts of the script.
The basic plot of this movie is that Ryan Reynolds is a back-from-the-dead cop who has to fix the mistake he made of stealing gold before that mistake ends the world. Sure, but they forgot to put the scene where he steals the gold in the movie. Arguably, the choice to steal the gold is the most important, character-defining thing that the character does. Executed well, this would have humanized Ryan Reynolds (no, I am not going to try to remember character names) by showing his motivations and his reservations, and the audience could have forgiven the sin that literally prevents him from going to heaven. The way the movies stands, he just seems like a jerk. There's some "we're poor" dialogue, but come on! The guy owns a multi-story house in downtown Boston with a backyard. His girlfriend does not appear to have to work (which, by the way, what?) and spends 98% of her time in bed or jogging or being kidnapped. You don't need to steal, Ryan Reynolds.

(Underscoring that Ryan Reynolds is a jerk is his final "sacrifice" in the climax, which is telling his girlfriend not to die to be with him in the afterlife right away. That's right, we're supposed to congratulate Ryan Reynolds on not being so incredibly selfish that he would let his girlfriend die. High five, Ryan Reynolds, your character growth went from dirty cop who lies to his girlfriend to one-step-above-a-Nazi-in-the-Indiana-Jones-movies level of d-bag.)

The script also forgot a lot of the story beats that it should have stolen from Men in Black. Yes, the basic parts are there: first action sequence goes wrong and introduces main character to the new world, character and new partner don't get along and something goes sideways on their first mission, character and partner are drawn into a larger, world-threatening adventure, finale with explosions, credits. But RIPD does none of the groundwork to establish the connections between the different parts of the plot; imagine Men in Black if you didn't see the bad guy crash-land, or follow him as he set about his plans. Instead of tying plot threads together into one story, RIPD feels like it's checking points off a list of scenes that are supposed to happen. (One of the best, unintentionally[?] funny scenes in the movie has Jeff Bridges shouting at heaven about why heaven would make a relic that could end the world - because that, like everything else, is just thrown in there unexplained.)

Men in Black did a lot of things right (in the first one, anyway), and one of the most important of those was letting the audience and Will Smith share a sense of discovery about the new world being discovered. Whoa! That guy is an alien. Wow! This is an awesome underground lair full of professionals who save the world. Cool! This tiny gun blows things up in a disproportionate way. RIPD, for all the things it cribs, forgets the wonder. There are weird creatures, underground lairs, cool guns, etc, but everything is taken for granted to the point that it's boring. Ryan Reynolds walks through the movie saying "whatever" to everything, and so does the cinematography and editing. The effect is to make huge swaths of the story joyless.

2. Good ideas aren't explored.
Frustratingly, there are some cool ideas in RIPD. Hunting souls that should have gone to hell, "soul rot," time stopping at the moment of death, politics in heaven. A lot of things where you think "hey that's neat" are almost instantly dropped, or simply serve as window dressing for the generic plot.

The best example of a botched fun idea is that Reynolds and Bridges appear to everyone else as an old asian man and a supermodel. Ryan Reynolds' fancy gun looks like a banana. The opportunity for hilarity is there, and it's used to good effect... basically once. I kept waiting for switches between camera shots. If you were shooting the movie, why not shoot every single scene with both the main actors and the doubles, and then play around in the editing room to see when the switches were funniest? It's clear from the frequency of switches that the doubles were on set enough to do this. And for Pete's sake, why didn't they hire a model who could act? How great would it have been for a model to have Bridges' Old West swagger, his cowboy-Lebowski drawl? Think of those great scenes from Face/Off, but funnier. It might have been better with the doubles 90% of the time. I would have enjoyed the heck out of an action movie reverse-All of Me. Someone make that.

3. It's unintentionally offensive.
At least I hope it's unintentional. The writers seem to think it's funny, not offensive, to have Ryan Reynolds complain about being asian. Maybe they figured it was "in character" for Bridges to call him "Grandpa Chen." However, let's make it a rule: no race jokes when your entire cast is white. While I know I said the casting was one of the more solid aspects of the film, there's a distinctly beige flavor to it. Sure, it's Boston, but Boston has racial and ethnic diversity. I promise.

(And why is it curry that sets the "dead-Os" off? [Seriously "dead-Os"? That's all you could come up with?] Okay let's assume that's harmless and not an anti-Indian thing. What about Bridges' interrogation cards that seem racially inflammatory? Best case, it's the dead-Os that are racist, but again why are we even doing the whole race thing when all the main characters are white?)

Possibly worse than the casual racism, though, are the "dead-Os." These are the villainous dead people who didn't get sucked down to hell. When they smell curry (see parenthetical above), they "pop," revealing their true, evil nature and assuming a new form. Here they're clearly cribbing on another Men in Black bit - zapping aliens in human form to reveal that they're aliens.

The problem with the dead-Os is their character design. The CG people seem to have been shooting for somewhere between "Evil Dead" and "goofy cartoon" but they landed in "dirty, obese, and uncomfortably close to handicapped." Here are examples:

The designs needed to be weirder, more cartoony, grosser, more evil, something. They've dug into a new uncanny valley, where CG characters look like they're making fun of the handicapped and the obese. Every time there's a new dead-O on the screen, it feels more wrong and uncomfortable.

***4. Bonus! There are also some basic core logic issues.

  • What happens to souls after they get shot by the magic guns? Aren't they going to hell anyway?
  • Why is Boston one of the biggest hubs for dead-Os? On the scale of the world, it should be quiet.
  • When evil Kevin Bacon stops time, why don't they just kill all the RIPD officers?
  • Ryan Reynolds repeatedly says he got shot in the face. We saw him get shot. He did not get shot in the face. I may have liked the movie more if that had actually happened.
  • If only gobbledygook comes out when you try to tell people who you really are when you come back from the dead, why is Ryan Reynolds able to tell his girlfriend who he is?
  • Why does no one have a Boston accent?
  • If Ryan Reynolds was not a good cop, why is he recruited into the RIPD?
Sure, those are the kind of issues you can generally just hand-wave away because it's not a movie and it's not that serious... but that's when it's a more enjoyable movie.

This reads like a takedown of RIPD, but it's really more of a takedown of the studio system that manufactured it. RIPD had all the pieces of a blockbuster. On paper, it should have made money hand over fist. But it was such a blatantly robotic copycat moneygrab that it didn't work as a movie.

Now can someone please make a sci-fi action movie version of All of Me starring Jonah Hill possessed by the spirit of Helen Mirren, possibly hunting werewolves (from space), set in the distant future?


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