They say there’s no rest for the wicked. Even if you haven’t been wicked for very long.
Take Nick, poor guy. In a moment of weakness, this typically conscientious Boston cop pilfered a handful of weird gold chunks from a drug dealer’s apartment and buried them in his backyard—a nice, shiny nest egg for he and the missus. No one was going to miss the gold—the only one who’d ask for it is safely locked away now. And he’s been trying to convince himself that it’s a purely victimless crime.
But the 24-karat cache nibbles at Nick’s conscience. So the morning after he buries it, he tells his partner, Hayes, that he’s going to turn his share in.
Hayes sighs dramatically. “I hate it when you’re right.”
Yeah, he really hates it. So much so that, as soon as he gets a chance, Hayes kills Nick. Partners: Can’t live with ’em, can’t—Oh, wait. Maybe you can.
Now Nick’s on the wrong side of eternity because of that shiny stuff in his yard. Sure, he had every intention of turning it in, but you know what they say about good intentions.
Instead of being damned, Nick is rerouted to a postmortem police station—a purgatory of sorts for crooked cops. He’s told the “Universe” needs his skills, and in exchange for a good recommendation on Judgment Day he’ll spend 100 years serving the Rest In Peace Dept. Doing what? he wonders. Well, certainly not directing traffic or even busting burglars. No, this spirit squad is designed to capture earth’s evil dead (those reluctant to pass on and who’ve somehow slipped through the Universe’s bureaucratic cracks) and bring them back to face the music. (Harps, we can only assume.)
Or, if hauling them all the way back to the other side is too much trouble, they can just shoot ’em, erasing the stain of their ugly souls forever.
Technically, the celestial beings in charge don’t encourage such ruthless retaliation, but that doesn’t seem to bother Nick’s new partner, Roy—a shoot-first-and-ask- mumbled-questions-later dude who hails from the Old West. It seems as though Nick has, essentially, been given a license to kill.
All of whom hate cumin.
After that, things just get weird.
Let’s give Nick, Roy and the rest of the R.I.P.D. their due: They try to keep the streets relatively clean of “deados,” as they’re called. Without this intrepid posse of postmortem police, the world would’ve ended in the 1950s. And when it’s discovered that these deados are trying to reassemble a profane artifact known as the Staff of Jericho to reverse the flow of dead souls leaving the planet (causing them to rain down on the rest of us like so many malevolent meatballs on a cloudy day), they do everything in their ghostly power to stop them.
They don’t risk their lives, exactly. They’re already dead. But they do try to save the world when they could’ve just spent their time playing, I dunno, Parcheesi or something.
Nick also does what he can to protect his surviving wife, and even when it means he won’t get to see her much, encourages her to push off death and live her own life without him. Which, when you think about it, is way better than haunting her forever, shaking chains and throwing dishes. More pertinent to the rest of us still among the living, he shows remorse for his bad behavior and puts quite a lot of stock in the value of a good reputation. “What she thinks, that’s who I am,” he says after she finds out about the gold. “And I blew that.”
God has been replaced by the aforementioned Universe here. So while the supernatural world we see seems to have some Christian trappings (references to hell and Judgment Day are made), the filmmakers steer well clear of any direct references to a Christian God, or even a generic creator. “The Universe knows better than us,” Roy tells Nick.
In practice, that moral consciousness serves as something of a CEO for a well-meaning but massively bloated and unwieldy company. When Nick asks why there’s a need for the R.I.P.D. at all, he’s told, “150,000 people die every day. The system wasn’t designed to handle that kind of volume.” Directives from on high are sent via papers in buckets shooting down golden vacuum tubes. Roy and Nick are beholden to a division called “Eternal Affairs,” which doles out judgments and suspensions.
Down on the earth, we see a cadre of dead people who only show their true, monstrous forms when they sniff cumin. But Roy and Nick can tell when someone’s dead, even when they’re not in their horrific real forms, by the corruption that seems to follow them: broken machines, flickering lights, slime, etc.
Talismans wield real power. Religious holidays like Ash Wednesday and Rosh Hashanah are mentioned. Roy talks about how deados often “raise money for various religions.”
Nick and Roy don’t look like themselves anymore, at least to the living. As part of the “Universe’s witness protection program,” Nick appears as an elderly Asian gentleman, while Roy looks like a young blonde woman—who wears a tight, cleavage-baring dress. Mortal men constantly ogle Roy’s avatar, whistling at her and offering her modeling gigs.
Note that though all this gender-bending is done strictly for comedic affect, it is pervasive. And Roy himself spends some time ogling other women.
We see Nick and his wife in bed together. She’s wearing a blouse and panties as they hug and tumble and roll. For Roy’s part, he says that in life he paid for love by the hour. And he demonstrates a fetish for women’s ankles. He laments that after his death, coyotes molested his skull. (Nick celebrates that fact.)
There’s talk of affairs, pornography, castration and sexual body parts. A very large man walks around in a dressing room wearing only a towel. (He flashes his fellow police officers.)
R.I.P.D. is full of so much outrageous slapstick and over-the-top violence that even Wile E. Coyote might find it a little silly. Most of the folks we see can’t be killed, and so we see them get smashed by cars, run over by buses, thwapped by cinder blocks, flattened by construction equipment, bonked with metal signs and repeatedly hammered by slabs of cement. (I should say here that they do feel pain.) Several leap or fall from great heights, smacking into buildings and roadways. One deado tears off his own arm to escape handcuffs. Another is harpooned in his (mostly bare) rear. Dozens are shot in the head, vanishing in a whirl of mist.
Transformed deados are grotesque, monstrous-looking creatures, sometimes with four arms or multiple mouths. One, as he morphs, develops deep black cracks in his skin before his skull splits open.
Nick dies when Hayes shoots him several times. He falls multiple stories and lands with a sickening, body-deforming smack. The death occurs during a huge gun battle between policemen and a drug gang in which countless people are shot or blown up. A woman is stabbed and nearly dies from the wound. Blood pours out of her, floating up to weaponize the Staff of Jericho. (She’s a human sacrifice of sorts, used to conjure power for the evil proceedings.)
Cars and trucks crash and burn. A helicopter is hit by a flying construction vehicle and then shoots straight into the ground. Houses nearly collapse from the decay of the dead. A badge is supernaturally branded on Nick’s chest. We often hear, graphically, about how Roy’s body was eaten by coyotes.
One or two muffled and/or incomplete f-words. About 20 s-words. We also hear handfuls of other profanities, including “a‑‑,” “b‑‑ch,” “d‑‑n,” “h‑‑‑,” “p‑‑‑ed,” “p-cker” and “d‑‑k.” Jesus’ name is abused at least a half-dozen times, and God’s is misused once or twice. Obscene gestures are made twice. “Injun” is thrown around a couple of times by Roy.
Flushing toilets and passing gas serve to move the story along its odd way at times. Roy offers to “fix” a procedural issue by planting a gun on a deado. He’s very dangerous behind the wheel of a car, having lived in the Wild West and all.
For all its eccentricities, R.I.P.D. feels strangely derivative—the bizarre progeny of Men in Black and The Sixth Sense. You might say that freaky lawmen see dead people in this movie.
The biggest downside of that derivation? Continuous scenes of grotesque violence and some pretty foul language. And the spirituality here is as inconsistent as the physics … and the characters … and the scriptwriting.
It’s good for movies to force you to ask important questions (about life, love, God or yourself). It’s not so good when one makes you ask, “So if the R.I.P.D. is a place where crooked cops work after they die, why is Roy so shocked to learn that Nick stole that gold?” Or, “Aren’t Nick and Roy technically deados, too? Why don’t they bloat up and get all monster-y when they smell cumin?”
Indeed, this film prompts dozens of such crazy questions. And it even asks some itself. When Nick and Roy learn about the Staff of Jericho’s awful power, Roy asks, “Why would someone make something like that?”
I’m wondering the same thing.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.