More and more in the time since comic books started to take off as Hollywood fodder, you can find some created as thinly veiled movie pitches. They’ll foist substandard writing and art on readers — but hey, studio execs, how about that can’t-miss micro-kernel of an idea, or that killer title? “Cowboys & Aliens” is a case in point. At a glance, the undead-cops yarn “R.I.P.D.” seems like another example, a low-profile comic with a clever name — “Rest in Peace Department,” in full — and the good fortune to grab the attention of Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds.
One difference, though, is that this comic was scripted by Peter M. Lenkov — not a big name, but still, a writer on the new “Hawaii Five-O” and a guy who at least knows how to lay an entertainment foundation. Too bad director Robert Schwentke (“RED”) and the writing team handling the 3-D screen adaptation don’t hold up their end, failing to do much with a premise that felt like it could rate with, say, “Men in Black.”
Reynolds plays Nick, a Boston cop flawed enough to pocket a gold artifact he stumbles across in a raid, but decent enough to finally decide to do the right thing. He tells his coconspirator, Hayes (Kevin Bacon), who says he’s cool with the decision — or not, as Hayes ambushes and kills Nick, sending him up a vortex to the great beyond in the movie’s most inspired effect.
Only he doesn’t quite get there. Suddenly Nick is meeting with the bureau chief for the R.I.P.D. (Mary-Louise Parker, amusingly tart). Time to do his penance: a century-long tour busting “Deados,” monstrous souls trying to evade Judgment by disguising themselves as regular folk. The real haul, though, is getting on with his new partner, Roy (Bridges), a long-winded Old West lawman who prefers to ride solo. But clearly, teamwork will be required to stop Bacon’s baddie, who’s got out-of-this-world plans for that mysterious gold relic.
We always look to Reynolds to crack wise, and Bridges seems similarly primed to goof around, like he’s imagining Rooster Cogburn with a couple of strands of the Dude’s DNA. But try as they might, they are stuck with a script that has a completely muddled character dynamic. Who’s wry? Who’s out of his depth? It changes scene to scene. You start to think, well maybe the supernatural action will be the payoff. Nope — there is less eye candy than you would expect, and it’s underwhelming. (You’ll likely appreciate the ubiquitous Boston location touches, though, including a peek inside the Green Monster.)
The movie does get a surprising amount of mileage out of its endlessly previewed joke that, to mortal eyes, Nick appears as an Asian octogenarian (James Hong), and Roy looks like a sexy blonde (Victoria’s Secret model Marisa Miller). Hong was swell on “Seinfeld,” but you know something’s amiss when you turn out for Reynolds and you get more laughs from the “five, ten minutes” guy.Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.