The idea of Rocky vs. Raging Bull is almost irresistible, and when it comes to that factor, Grudge Match has its moments. However, those moments aren’t enough to make a good movie.
Indeed, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro have been cashing their nostalgia bitcoins for a while now. De Niro seems to be taking every film that comes his way – good or bad – and relying more and more on his reputation rather than giving a good performance. It’s not just the Meet the Parents films that capitalize on this. In fact, The Family from earlier this year had a huge plot point to the film hinge on De Niro’s long career playing a Mafioso (resulting in a scene almost as awkward as the Julia Roberts gag in Oceans 12).
Similarly, Stallone has been trying to spin his once-top-rated box office name into modern success. It worked with The Expendables and The Expendables 2, but pretty much everything else he’s tried to reclaim his 80s glory days has fallen flat. While I thought Bullet to the Head wasn’t bad and thoroughly enjoyed Escape Plan this past fall with Arnold Schwarzenegger, few others did.
The Grudge Match story follows two former boxers – Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) – who had fought each other two times before. Each fighter won a single bout, but the ultimate tie-breaking fight never happened. Now, they are far past their prime, and a fast-talking promoter named Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart) convinces them to step in the ring one last time to settle their feud.
As they prepare for their match, we learn more about their histories and why things got so tense for them. It’s no surprise that Sharp and McDonnen had a falling out over a woman, Sally “No Nickname” Rose (Kim Basinger). She was Sharp’s girl, but she slept with McDonnen. To make things worse, Sally got pregnant, and Sharp never forgave either of them. McDonnen’s son B.J. (Jon Bernthal) meets his father and ends up becoming his trainer for the fight.
Like most films that fail to hit their mark, Grudge Match suffers from script problems, feeling like the concept got the movie greenlit with less thought given to what would fill the space. The film is stuffed with gags and references to both actors’ previous top-rated fight films, with the majority of these jokes landing at Stallone’s feet. These are probably the best scenes in the film if you can get past their cheeky nature, but they don’t form a real story.
What begins as a relatively small film about two guys facing one another in the ring, the plot expands and loses focus. Is the film about Sharp and his relationship with Sally? Is it about McDonnen and his relationship with his son? And his crammed-in grandson? Is it about the boxing promoter trying to crawl out from under the shadow of his Don King-esque father?
It’s not that a film couldn’t juggle all of these storylines, but rather that this film can’t. A lot of the meshing problems come from the writing stage, which makes the second half of the film get needlessly dark and gloomy with plot twists that would make even Tyler Perry roll his eyes. A lot of the blame also falls on director Peter Segal’s shoulders, who has historically worked on films (like Tommy Boy, 50 First Dates, and Get Smart) that had far simpler plots that weren’t trying to be a sports flick on top of a kitchen-sink drama.
The performances are good, for the most part. Stallone and De Niro fall into their stock characters in the film, which may not be Oscar-worthy but sure are comfortable. Alan Arkin as Louis “Lightning” Conlon, Sharp’s trainer, is probably the best thing. Arkin has moved into the role of the grumpy old man rather well, and the best jokes and call-back gags are in his hands. I imagine that, at the very least, Burgess Meredith is smiling on his performance from above.
Kevin Hart also does well, not necessarily acting but rather presenting his typically loud stand-up persona. Still, his presence feels a bit like stunt casting, a cheap grab at his strong fan base that has made his string of one-man stand-up films a cinematic sensation. Sure, Hart is funny, but I can’t help but think the producers wanted him in the movie to connect to an audience that either doesn’t remember Rocky and Raging Bull, or one that doesn’t care.
Then there’s Kim Basinger. Her phoned-in performance in Grudge Match makes me marvel that this woman has an Academy Award sitting in a closet at home. Or maybe it makes sense that it’s in her closet. Still, I have to respect the film a bit for putting her in this role, not just because she too was an icon of the 80s, but also because it was nice to see a Hollywood film cast an age-appropriate actress against senior citizens like Stallone and De Niro.
By the time Grudge Match gets to the actual grudge match, I felt beat up by a movie that didn’t deserve the hype. The end of the film is decent enough, and if you’re going to stumble, it’s better to stumble in the middle. However, there’s very little about the movie that requires it to be seen other than as a rental – and a cheap one at that.
The Upside: This is your chance to see Stallone and De Niro actually duke it out in the boxing ring.
The Downside: An overwritten (and undercooked) script makes the connective tissue feel like an old boxing injury.
On the Side: Stallone and De Niro previous starred together in Cop Land, though they never beat the crap out of each other in that film.