The team behind the surprise spinoff RIPD 2: Rise Of the Damned understands a cardinal rule of prequels: They should stand on their own, rather than endlessly calling back to the film that spawned them. That’s the only way to avoid making a film that primarily speaks to the most dedicated fans. Rise Of the Damned’s creators most likely understand this because the original RIPD doesn’t have any fans. Enough time has passed since its unheralded 2013 release that it may not be more than a dim memory for anyone on Earth. (It’s currently streaming on HBO Max, for the curious and/or understandably forgetful.)
If RIPD does inspire a flicker of recollection, it’s most likely to do with its buddy-action pairing of Ryan Reynolds, in one of his many pre-Deadpool attempts to jump into a comics-based franchise, and Jeff Bridges, then capitalizing on his True Grit cowboy persona. The premise, taken from a Dark Horse comics series, is basically Men in Black redundantly crossed with Ghostbusters: In the afterlife, a contemporary cop (Reynolds) is teamed with Old West sheriff Roy Pulsipher (Bridges) to return to Earth and track down “Deados” — wayward souls possessing human bodies.
Obviously those stars aren’t returning for this direct-to-streaming prequel, which just leaves the lore of this universe as a draw for viewers. This is an origin story of sorts for Roy — though it’s easy to forget it’s the same character, because lead actor Jeffrey Donovan, star of Burn Notice, makes no effort to imitate Bridges’ cottony, tobacco-stained drawl, or fake a 19th-century cowboy affect at all, really. Where Old Roy was a gunslinger out of a Saturday-morning cartoon, Young Roy is more the type you’d find in a local TV ad during that cartoon’s commercial breaks. Donovan seems only momentarily committed to the part. (It’s entirely possible that, like most people, he has not seen the original RIPD.)
Killed during a train robbery in 1876, Roy is sent to the afterlife and paired with veteran deado-buster Jeanne (Penelope Mitchell), a sword-toting badass. Though Roy never seems all that upset by his fate, he still wants revenge on Slim (Jake Choi), the man he holds responsible for his death. (None of this quite squares with what the original movie says about Roy’s demise, but who would notice?) Roy and Jeanne’s RIPD assignment is to stop Otis Clairborne (Richard Brake) from unleashing an army of angry souls from hell, bringing about the end of the world as we know it, etc. Naturally, Roy’s personal vendetta entwines with the world-ending stakes.
It’s all nonsense, but it’s nonsense that improves on its predecessor, at least aesthetically: Reimagining RIPD as a Western downplays its status as a Men in Black knock-off, while giving the action some novelty and a baseline tactility. When the special effects arrive, they’re mostly generic squiggles of smoke and light, but the movie never descends into a green-screen nightmare populated by ugly CG characters the way the first one did. Instead, director and co-writer Paul Leyden (Chick Fight) uses old-fashioned set design, costumes, and lighting to set the scene, rather than an excess of computer gunk. It isn’t exactly a feast for the eyes: This is still a direct-to-video prequel to a franchise nonstarter. But the Western setting goes a long way toward avoiding the hazy, phony look of so many big-screen wannabe blockbusters.
What Rise Of the Damned does share with both its predecessor and its various junk-pile ancestors is a misjudgment of its human angle. For some reason, Leyden and his co-writer Andrew Klein have decided the emotional hook of the story is Roy’s post-death acceptance that his perfectly nice prospective son-in-law Angus (Richard Fleeshman), is… as nice as he initially seems, and worthy of Roy’s daughter Charlotte (Tilly Keeper). This is true even though Charlotte spends most of the movie off-screen, and barely seems to cross Roy’s mind when he dies. The outcome of Roy’s distrust of Angus is only in doubt in the sense that viewers may not believe the movie will spend so much run time on such a narrative dead end, especially when the more interesting relationship is between Roy and Jeanne. She has a backstory of historical significance the movie reveals late in the game, a bonkers touch that’s perfect for this kind of B-movie.
Not all of the film’s other quirks work this well. Rachel Adedeji and Evlyne Oyedokun are given the impossibly thankless roles of playing the Earthly bodies Roy and Jeanne inhabit — essentially, corporeal disguises to prevent any people they used to know from recognizing them. (Jeanne, who’s been dead for hundreds of years, should not have this problem.) It’s a conceit carried over from the first movie, which made a running joke out of Bridges and Reynolds appearing, to outside observers, as a beautiful blonde woman and ubiquitous character actor James Hong, respectively. That bit of business flirted with the bad taste of turning bodies into punchlines, and also wasn’t much of a joke to begin with. This version manages to be more questionable and even less funny: Leyden casts two Black women as sight gags, so he and co-writer Andrew Klein can make winking jokes about racism without including any actual Black characters of consequence. It’s an astonishing miscalculation.
So, it could be argued, is making RIPD 2 in the first place. It’s the kind of project that gives the lie to other movies described with a pithy “No one asked for this.” (Oh, “no one asked for” a Buzz Lightyear spinoff from the beloved and enduring Toy Story series? That film seems essential compared to this decade-later prequel to a critically panned flop that vaguely resembles its fellow flop Jonah Hex.) Given how unnecessary Rise Of the Damned is, Leyden’s choice to pare down the original RIPD’s summer-movie bombast into an agreeable, swiftly paced supernatural Western qualifies as a rousing success. On the other hand, anyone working in the RIPD universe should also understand the value of just staying dead.