Review by C.J. Bunce
You can almost see actor Jeffrey Donovan calling his Burn Notice co-star Bruce Campbell for pointers as he took on the role of the Dark Horse Comics hero Sheriff Roy Pulsifer in the new movie R.I.P.D. 2: Rise of the Damned. Because it’s Campbell’s three-season Western series The Adventures of Brisco Ceunty, Jr. that his new movie feels like more than anything else. Back in 2014 we reviewed here at borg the movie R.I.P.D., a good, not great movie that had its moments, namely a performance by Jeff Bridges which alone made it worth watching (it also starred Ryan Reynolds), and it had a duo of heroes played for laughs in some scenes by two different actors. In R.I.P.D. 2, the prequel to R.I.P.D., which just arrived on Netflix, Donovan takes on Bridges’ role, only as a younger man. If you’re a fan of Donovan or the secondary humor of Burn Notice, you’re going to laugh as Donovan goes all-in as a loud and boisterous, newly undead 1876 sheriff–while not taking any of it too seriously.
R.I.P.D. 2: Rise of the Damned is a Western action comedy you’d file on the same video store wall with Cat Ballou or Maverick, without the overt parody spoof bits of Blazing Saddles or A Million Ways to Die in the West, but Donovan fills the shoes of his character every bit as well as Josh Brolin in Jonah Hex, Tom Berenger in Rustler’s Rhapsody, or Nick Cage and Sam Elliott in Ghost Rider. The movie also qualifies as the “weird Western” genre. Here that means a mash-up of Western and horror. R.I.P.D. stands for the Rest in Peace Department, and it hails from a popular graphic novel of the same name. Like another comics adaptation, Men in Black, this worldwide squad tries to keep the peace between our world and another world. Here that’s keeping hell separate from the world of humans. In the R.I.P.D. universe when you die you go to heaven or hell, but sometimes the dead get caught in between. It’s up to R.I.P.D. to track down those in-between souls. It sounds serious but it’s mainly all comic book fun and over-the-top action movie antics–Jonah Hex, but goofy.
In the first R.I.P.D. the soul of an older Sheriff Roy Pulsifer partners with the soul of a younger newly dead man. The key story conceit that plays well for laughs is that both souls must inhabit the bodies of someone on Earth, which means we saw Ryan Reynolds sometimes as the other characters see him, as Asian actor James Hong, and Bridges as blonde actress Marisa Miller. In this prequel Donovan’s Pulsifer is paired with the 445-year-old soul of Joan of Arc, played by Australian actress Penelope Mitchell (Star Trek: Picard, Hellboy, The Vampire Diaries), but the duo is seen by the other characters (and sometimes the audience) as black women, played by actress Rachel Adedeji (Hollyoaks, Doctors, Champion) and stage actress Evlyne Oyedokun. A bad script could have made this kind of comedy something to cringe at, but writers Andrew Klein (MacGyver) and Paul Leyden (Cleaners) get it right. Smartly, the script also doesn’t shy away from addressing the ramifications of two black women charging into an Old West town on horseback. As with the first movie, the back-and-forth splicing of each actor for the other is good fun that will keep viewers around until the end.
One of the better set-ups involves the opening story–Pulsifer doesn’t like his soon-to-be son-in-law Angus, played by Richard Fleeshman (The Sandman, Coronation Street). When Pulsifer is shot and killed (setting up a small whodunnit subplot) he doesn’t get to say goodbye to his daughter, played by Tilly Keeper (Marooned Awakening, EastEnders). Naturally after Pulsifer gets his instructions in the in-between realm–where he signs a contract he doesn’t read and is directed to stop a hellmouth from opening near his former hometown–he wants to say goodbye to his daughter. But the supernatural rules prevent him from doing so–his language becomes gibberish at that point, and actress Rachel Adedeji plays this part–as Pulsifer–perfectly each time he tries to break the rules.
As Westerns go, the supporting actors were nicely cast and really fill out the roles. Richard Brake (The Mandalorian, Kingsman: The Secret Service) is the perfect loathsome hellion trying to bring hell back to Earth. Jack Choi is a man who insists he’s been wrongly accused of Pulsifer’s murder. And Craige Els (Doctor Who, Law & Order: UK) plays the smarmy mayor.
The fact that Pulsifer’s partner is Joan of Arc may seem like a spoiler, but anyone with a fifth grade education should figure it out from her first introduction. As with Donovan, Penelope Mitchell has some good, well-choreographed battle scenes where she wields her sword. She certainly qualifies as badass.
This isn’t a big-budget film, so adjust expectations accordingly. It’s less commercial than the original, more like a TV movie. But it’s also more fun. The comparison to the tone of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. is spot on. The special effects and overall production is on par with the Hellboy remake, Monster Hunter, Van Helsing, and even 1980s horror effects like those found at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The final incarnation of the villain in the climax is actually quite good, something you could see in a Ghost Rider movie. The humor seems directed at pre-teens. But there’s also nothing truly bad about it–it’s fun to see and it avoids being one of the more dreadful horror efforts, like I, Frankenstein. It’s also a faithful effort to adapt the spirit of the comic books with Donovan exactly right in the leading role.
For fans of Jeffrey Donovan and the Dark Horse Comics, catch R.I.P.D. 2: Rise of the Damned now streaming on Netflix. It’s also on Blu-ray and Digital here. The first R.I.P.D. is on Blu-ray and DVD and the original graphic novel is available from Amazon.