Welcome back to the WTF Happened? series, a collaborative effort, along with the Jock and Nerd Podcast, to take a look at some of the worst movies imaginable. For this entry we are going to take a look at the 2013 adaptation of the Dark Horse comic’s mini-series The Rest In Peace Department (R.I.P.D.) This also marks the second entry in what is so far a continuing look at poorly received comic book movies with Ryan Reynolds attached.
Note: Please remember, what follows is not a 100% accurate recounting of the events that led to the creation of the film, but a speculation based off of research that I have cultivated. Also be sure to listen to the WTF EPISODE RIGHT HERE as well!
THE SET UP
By 2013, it was easier to name how many movies in theaters weren’t based on comic books than those that were. It was the year that launched the DCEU with it’s darker, brooding Man of Steel, attempted to heal the wounds of the past (his and ours) in The Wolverine, brought aging-badasses back out of retirement…again… in RED 2, ventured back to Asgard and beyond with Thor: The Dark World, gave us a much less self-assured Tony Stark in Iron Man 3, and spilled gallons of blood (and other bodily fluids) with Kick-Ass 2. It would be fairly easy to get lost in that wave, and that is exactly what happened to the Dark Horse comic adaptation of R.I.P.D.
MAKING THE FILM
The twisted tale of R.I.P.D. begins with the writer of the original comic mini-series, Peter M. Lenkov.
Lenkov has stated in several interviews that his biggest dream as a child/teenager was to write comic books, and has bragged about how extensive his comic collection was…before his mom threw them away. This didn’t stop him from instead pursuing a career in film and television.
In 2001, Lenkov’s accomplishments led to him finally achieving his childhood goal when he penned the four-issue mini-series Rest In Peace Department for Dark Horse Comics. The comic was optioned as a film the same year with Universal Pictures.
The film languished in development hell until 2011, when Universal would ultimately take the chance on making it, budgeted at $130 Million. The pre-production process moved quite quickly as Lenkov and Richardson were attached as producers, and Universal put one of their go-to guys, Neal H. Moritz, in the producer spot with them. Moritz, who has delivered both major success and total bombs for Universal in the past would attach his own production company to the film. Ryan Reynolds, a some-what rising star in his own right, (who had previously worked with Moritz as well as on films for Universal) would also sign on as the film’s protagonist, Nick Walker. The producers also originally sought Zach Galifianakis for the role of Nick’s R.I.P.D. partner Roy. However, due to scheduling conflicts he could not sign on to the movie. Jeff Bridges would instead come on to replace him. The production would also hire writers Matt Manfredi and Paul Hay, who had mild success with a higher budget fantasy action film, 2010’s Clash of the Titans remake, and director Robert Schwentke who had just made a name for himself with his own comic book movie, RED. The addition of Schwentke also meant bringing along RED star Mary-Louise Parker. Parker would take the role of Proctor, which the producers had at one time considered Jodie Foster for. With the gang assembled, R.I.P.D. was on it’s way.
Principal photography for the film took place during the summer of 2011, and was done entirely in and around the Boston area. Sound stages just outside of the city were used for filming most of the interior scenes of the film, such as the R.I.P.D. headquarters. Only the final scene of the film was shot in Los Angeles, on another sound stage.
The film released in theaters in July of 2013, which can be easily understood with the extensive amount of post-production effects, CGI, and 3D effects used throughout it. There was no early screening for critics. The film made $12.7 million in it’s opening weekend, was critically panned, and was quickly labelled a box office disaster. In fact, the film would only go on to gross a little over $70 million worldwide, and is considered to be one of the worst box office disasters ever.
SO, WTF HAPPENED?
Oh, boy. To say that R.I.P.D. tanked is one of the biggest understatements of this decade. The film was a box office disaster, and it is difficult to find a critic that actually had anything nice to say about it. Yet again, the story of how this mess came to be goes all the way back to Lenkov.
Let’s face it, Peter Lenkov has made a lucrative career out of delivering piles of shit more often than not. If you wonder what Lenkov has done that you may know, he wrote the 1993 Sylvester Stallone/Wesley Snipes flick Demolition Man. Need more to impress you? He wrote and produced one of the most influential comedies of the 90s – Paul Shore’s Son in Law. Not enough? He was one of the producers of CSI: NY and the producer that brought both Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver back to television for CBS. Ultimately, Lenkov is one of the people that proves being a producer means being able to find work and make money despite the fact that you make you make is ever actually good. (With the exception of Demolition Man, if you choose to see the movie as a satire.)
It isn’t easily discernible how he came to be published by Dark Horse Comics, but Mike Richardson, founder of Dark Horse Comics was fairly active as a film producer in throughout the 90s as well. This means the two could easily have met through work, or at least similar social circles. The fact that Richardson optioned the idea of R.I.P.D. to Universal before Lenkov’s actual comic even hit shelves tells me this comic idea wasn’t born to be a comic idea, but instead was a way that Richardson and Lenkov figured they could turn Universal’s success with the Men In Black franchise to their benefit.
The actual comic reads more like a slapped together rough draft of an idea that was only published because Lenkov and Richardson needed some sort of proof of concept for their movie pitch. At the same time, with Richardson owning a comic publisher, the two could then throw that first-draft proof of concept out into the world for the comics masses to purchase, and make even more money off of it. It also, guarantees them some sort of built-in audience when the film adaptation would come around.
Too bad for them, Universal optioned the film, but then almost immediately shelved it. The official reasons that swirled included too high of a budget demand, and an inability to properly create the effects needed. My assumption is that the property was so similar to Men In Black, which Universal had just released a sequel to, that they didn’t want other studios the chance to try and ride that bandwagon. Ten years, and another Men in Black sequel later, Universal seemed a little more willing to take R.I.P.D. off the shelf.
Comic book movies had become the bread-and-butter of Hollywood, and being able to say “based on a comic book” almost immediately meant a project could get the funding it needed. However, Universal decided that it needed to have a tight grip on the film, especially with how weak the source material is, and how similar it is to an existing franchise. They knew they were planning to end the Men in Black series with a third film, and R.I.P.D. could easily squeeze in and take its place once that finished.
Universal was not interested in taking any chances, so they did what movie studios do best; hired the cheapest work available to slam together a bunch of stuff we’ve already seen and hope we’re too stupid to notice. While their hired gun writers did their best to flesh-out what little Lenkov’s comic gave them, and Schwentke was able to deliver some visually stunning moments, it was obvious Universal was interested in the easiest, most kid-friendly film they could produce. The film did everything to focus on the cool gadgets, special effects, and crossing the streams between Ghostbusters, Men in Black, and the Avengers that there was no room for any real character or plot development. They even market-tested their casting choices initially. Reynolds was an easy grab, and someone who was desperate to prove he could be an action lead. Meanwhile, before he had to drop from the film, they sought comedy it-guy Zach Galifianakis for the roll of rootin’-tootin’ Roy Pulsipher. His scheduling conflict that pulled him off the movie was most likely a contractual obligation to do Hangover 3, which honestly was probably a better bomb to be a part of than this.
That’s not to say there may not have been a better film in there. Both Bridges and Parker have moments where they are genuinely enjoyable to watch, the attempt to build rules to the world are more than some films would even bother with, and even the alternate opening to the film sets a bit of a darker and more serious tone, and immediately introduces us to concepts of how the agency of R.I.P.D. works. The film is a movie about what happens after you die, and treats death like nothing, trivializing what is one of the most existentially terrifying things humans could even face. Instead, of an action-adventure film that could also have explored life, love, human connections, and even redemption we got a series of fat jokes, yet another world-ending portal in the sky, and everyone wanting to have sex with honky-tonk Jeff Bridges.
Not sure yet… but it better not have Ryan Reynolds in it…sorry, Ryan.