Grudge Match (United States, 2013)December 24, 2013
Back in the 1980s, when Sylvester Stallone was at his peak and the Rocky movies were arriving at regular intervals, there was an ongoing joke that, 20 or 30 years from then, Stallone would be doing Rocky 15 with the pugilist using a walker to get around the ring. Don't look now...
Actually, the underlying premise of Grudge Match is appealing, even if the execution is lackluster. It would seem to be an easy sell: get the stars of two of the most enduring boxing movies of the late-'70s/early-'80s to do a comedic sort-of reprise of those characters 30 years later. Stallone doesn't play Rocky and Robert De Niro isn't Raging Bull's Jake La Motta but anyone with a modicum of movie experience will make the connection. For those who miss it, there are plenty of callbacks to some of the iconic moments of the Rocky films (although fewer, if any, to Raging Bull - I guess the best-known scene from that film is too profane to adapt for a PG-13 audience). I kept expecting to hear "Gonna Fly Now." (Its absence is curious - couldn't Warner Brothers get the rights?)
Grudge Match postulates that, in the '80s, there was no bigger rivalry than the one between Pittsburgh natives Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro) and Henry "Razor" Sharp (Stallone). They fought two big matches with split results. The third bout never happened because Razor unexpectedly retired. Now, 30 years later, along comes promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), trying to put together a "grudge match" between the two. Capitalizing on YouTube videos and cheesy promotional opportunities, he drums up enough interest in the fight to sell out a 5000-seat venue. The Kid is on board from the start - he always wanted the chance to prove himself to be the best. Razor is reluctant but he needs the money to help out his friend and ex-trainer, Lightning (Alan Arkin). Entering the mix is Sally Rose (Kim Basinger), Razor's ex-girlfriend who slept with The Kid, and The Kid's now-grown son, BJ (Jon Bernthal).
When the movie focuses on comedy and parody, it's on relatively solid ground. There are no knock-out punches but it's funny in a genial Grumpy Old Men style. The drama is weak and unconvincing even by sit-com standards. Nevertheless, Grudge Match is enjoyable in an undemanding fashion until it crashes and burns at the end. The big boxing match is an embarrassment in every way. It's not just the awkward sight of two senior citizens duking it out in the ring that strikes a sour note, but the narrative of how this match develops is hideously wrong. Done with a slightly different approach, this could have been biting satire but director Peter Segal makes the catastrophic mistake of playing things straight and that's fatal. Still, if you go, sit through the big fight because the movie's two best scenes occur during the end credits.
De Niro has become so associated with comedies that it's no longer hard to see him slumming in something like this. In fact, The Kid is synonymous with De Niro's current image. It's a little bizarre seeing him reach back 33 years to resurrect a comedic version of La Motta. Meanwhile, Stallone plays the film's straight man and, as with all straight men, he's not supposed to be funny. The jokes are primarily at his expense. So it works. On balance, Stallone's incorporation in Grudge Match works better than De Niro's - not because he's a better actor (which obviously isn't the case) but because the Rocky image is more easily mined that the lesser-known one of La Motta.
The movie opens with some of the ugliest attempts at de-aging imaginable. In an attempt to represent The Kid and Razor as they were in their heyday, Segal uses old footage, bad CGI, shaky-cam shots, and unconvincing doubles to recreate the "classic" '80s bouts. It's astonishing how bad this material looks and it gets Grudge Match off on the wrong foot. 90 minutes later, after the film has mostly recovered from a shameful beginning, it does something equally unpardonable.
On balance, I think I'd rather have seen Rocky 15.
Grudge Match (United States, 2013)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Jon Bernthal, Kim Basinger, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin
Screenplay: Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Music: Trevor Rabin
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers