A film review by Craig J. Koban January 10, 2014 

GRUDGE MATCH jj
 

2013, PG-13, 113 mins.

 

Robert De Niro as Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen  /  Sylvester Stallone as Henry 'Razor' Sharp  /  Alan Arkin as Lightning  /  Jon Bernthal as B.J.  /  Kevin Hart as Dante Slate, Jr.  /  Kim Basinger as Sally Rose  /  Judd Lormand as Car Salesman  /  Nicole Andrews as Carla  /  Han Soto as Kenji

Directed by Peter Segal  /  Written by Tim Kelleher, Doug Ellin, and Rodney Rothman

GRUDGE MATCH is not so much a fully realized film as it is a one-joke gimmick without any discernible punch line.  

It also shamelessly takes advantage of our collective memories of two of the greatest pugilist characters in motion picture history (and the stars that played them) and decides to use that as a rather flimsy foundation for a comedy.  I kind of loathe it when a film takes iconic actors of the silver screen and marginalizes their past legendary roles instead of truly holding them up to proper levels of hero worship.  The end result of GRUDGE MATCH is that we feel embarrassment for these actors, and the fact that their legacy is used as a cheap marketing hook to lure people into cinemas is kind of sad. 

Of course, I’m talking about stars Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, who were in, yes, two of the greatest boxing films of all-time in ROCKY and RAGING BULL, playing two of the most memorable boxing characters of all-time in Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta respectively (granted, the latter was a reality-based figure).  The premise of GRUDGE MATCH is somewhat intriguing on paper: Have Stallone and De Niro play approaching-old-age home retired fighters that find themselves inevitably back in the squared circle for one last winner-take-all tussle.  The poster of these two stars alone in boxing garb is enough to sell this film, but that’s the issue: Nothing that GRUDGE MATCH does makes for a memorable filmgoing experience beyond the initial promise of seeing the Raging Bull go toe-to-toe with the Italian Stallion.  This is a P.W.P. film, or one containing a premise without a payoff.  That, and really, what’s fundamentally funny, per se, about seeing a 70-year-old De Niro and a 67-year-old Stallone fight one another?  In reality, you’d fear for their lives more than you would be cheering them on…or laughing at their expense.

Stallone plays Henry “Razor” Sharp, a fighter from Philadelphia…er…make that Pittsburgh…that decided to retire way back in 1983 after a series of brutal matches with his arch nemesis, Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro).  Their first two bouts ended with split results, and their third one would have been a battle for the ages, but Henry decided to call it quits – for secretive reasons – just before the match became a reality, which left Billy feeling angrily let down.  Flashforward 30 years and we are introduced to a down-on-his luck promoter, Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart, injecting what laughs he can into the middling material he’s given), who decides that interest is exceedingly high to see these two old farts go at it again (especially after a heated argument between the two ex-fighters went viral online and became an overnight sensation).  

 

 

Of course, Billy is elated at the prospects of having the opportunity to fight in a contest that he thought he was robbed of all those years ago, but Henry is far more reluctant.  Alas, being financially strapped, Henry begrudgingly decides to partake, realizing that his cut of the gate will allow him to come out of economic ruin.  With the card date set, both men – not in the finest shape for a PPV slugfest – decide to whip themselves back into fighting form.  Henry springs his old trainer, Lightning (Alan Arkin) from his retirement home to assist him, whereas Billy finds an unexpected source of tutelage in the form of his long estranged son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal).  Thrown into the mix and complicating everyone’s lives is the appearance of Sally (Kim Basinger), who was once Henry’s girlfriend who later slept with Billy, and became pregnant with B.J..  Ouch.  

If there is one thing that GRUDGE MATCH does well it’s that it takes an unexpected position of not going out of its way to present a black and white hero and villain in the story for us to root for and hate.  Both Henry and Billy are likeable, but deeply flawed chaps that have made mistakes, which leaves us questioning what side to take during the climatic big fight, staged relatively well by directed Peter Segal (GET SMART).  Even though Stallone and De Niro look relatively good for their ages (the sight of De Niro doing multiple pull-ups is kind of amazing in the training montages), they still nonetheless look suitable grizzled and withered to plausibly inhabit the roles of well-past-their-prime fighters.  The film also does manage to have some nice, sly callbacks to the training sequences of the first ROCKY film, although it appears that Henry has more problems drinking a dozen raw eggs than the thirtysomething Rocky ever did. 

Yet, the real problem with the film is the script, which awkwardly tiptoes between many unfunny pratfalls and even more insipid melodrama, the latter that is purely of the daytime soap opera level of interest.  The central love triangle in the film between Henry, Billy, and Sally exists more as a plot device to drive the narrative forward, which is not helped by the fact that Stallone and Basinger don’t have a scintilla of chemistry on screen together (Basinger, at 60, is still gorgeous, though).  Bernthal gives arguably the most grounded and interesting performance in the film as a man battling between his job to train his father and coming to grips with their estrangement, but the manner the screenplay connects the dots between him, Billy, Henry, and Rose seems awfully convenient and telegraphed…perhaps too much for its own good. 

That, and the actual promise of comedy here is never built upon at any real moment in the film.  Alan Arkin is a hoot as his trash talking trainer (he and Kevin Hart have some colorfully verbal sparring matches of their own), but the real source of laughs – De Niro and Stallone – never materializes.  If anything, the pair seems more physically uneasy in most of their scenes, which has the counterintuitive effect of suffocating the comedy of the moments their share.  Watching would-be hilarious scenes – like the pair terribly singing a duet of the National Anthem or skydiving out of a plane to a Target store parking lot, all for promotional purposes – is more cringe inducing than amusing.  There’s also not one tired and obligatory old man joke at the expense of the characters’ ages that isn't utilized here, and mostly to groan-inducing effect. 

With lame sitcom worthy gags and scattershot and unconvincing drama (not to mention inept segues between both), I'm not really left with much to recommend in GRUDGE MATCH.  In the end, it’s kind of pathetically sad – and ironic – to witness Stallone and De Niro sell themselves out as actors (much like their on-screen counterparts do) for what was, no doubt, a mighty fine payday…but at what ultimate cost?  I don’t honestly think that these two stars – whom I’ve admired for a lifetime – were deliberately trying to spit on the indelible legacy of films like RAGING BULL and ROCKY.  I really don’t.  But after seeing GRUDGE MATCH, they're not exactly celebrating our cherished memories of those sports classics either. 

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