– Summary –
Director : Peter Segal
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Sylvester Stallone, Robert DeNiro, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger, Alan Arkin, Ireland Baldwin, Jon Bernthal, LL Cool J, Joey Diaz, Anthony Anderson.
Approx Running Time : 120 Minutes
Synopsis: Two former boxers, now well past their prime, get back into the ring for a bout designed to determine once and for all which of them was the best.
What we think: Two aging superstars get back into the ring – Stallone, a beaten down “Rocky” type, and DeNiro, echoing his Jake LaMotta character from Raging Bull, play this film for all the comedy it’s worth (which isn’t much more beyond a single-joke premise stretched to feature length) and deliver a mild, unassuming sporting comedy flick that is light on drama, light on laughs, and ultimately, light on greatness. It’s definitely a “coulda been a contender” film, rather than a “title fight”.
Grudge Match is built around a single comedic premise. The idea of seeing two former screen boxing legends, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta, climb back into the ring, wrinkles an all, in a supposedly bitter fight to find out who is the better man. Stallone hasn’t done much outside his Rocky and Rambo revivals, or his exquisitely stupid (in a good way) Expendables franchise, and here he tries his hand at a genre he’s had a relatively rough time with: comedy. Anybody remember Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot? Or Oscar? You should. DeNiro fares little better; while he’s carved a comedy career in culturally popular fare like Meet The Fockers, he’s also ruined his early tough-guy persona by raping his legacy in shit such as Shark Tale, Hide and Seek, Godsend, New Year’s Eve and The Family. For a while there, a Robert DeNiro film wasn’t something you actively sought out. At least Stallone had the good grace to all but vanish from the scene for a fair while, instead of continuing to make garbage. So with both screen tough-guys ramping up their respective career resurgences, throwing them together in the same film, and in a boxing ring, no less, was probably something more inevitable than expected. Thus we have Grudge Match, an attempt for both stars to capitalize on the inherent humor having them effectively reprise their former boxing characters on the screen once more; is this slugfest a three round knockout, or will it go the distance and become an instant sporting classic?
Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: Pittsburgh boxers Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) become rivals after two fights, one in which Kid beats Razor and one in which Razor beats Kid. Before they have a rematch, Razor announces his retirement, ruining both of their careers. Years later, Razor is working in a shipyard when he’s visited by promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), who wants Razor to provide a motion capture performance for a video game. Razor begrudgingly accepts $15,000 needed to care for his ailing former-trainer and renovate his house. At the recording studio, he is surprised by Kid, who was also invited by Slate, and the two get into a fight and damage the studio’s equipment before being arrested. Cellphone footage of the fight is uploaded on YouTube and goes viral, giving Slate the idea of organizing a final fight between Razor and Kid, which he calls a “Grudge Match”. Kid accepts Slate’s offer, and Razor is forced to do so as well, after learning he has been fired from the shipyard. At the press conference to announce the Grudge Match, Razor is approached by his ex-girlfriend Sally Rose (Kim Basinger), who cheated on him with Kid during their youth and ended up becoming pregnant. Now widowed, Sally wants to reconnect with Razor, but he is reluctant. Razor later recruits his old trainer, Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Alan Arkin), to get him back in shape, while Kid is approached by his estranged biological son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal), against Sally’s wishes. After initially dismissing him, the two begin to bond after B.J. gives Kid helpful advice regarding his technique, and is invited to be his trainer.
Grudge Match has any number of critical problems, most of which can be laid at the feet of screenwriters Doug Ellin, Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman (honestly, if a film has more than two writers you just expect it to be a clusterf@ck these days!), none of whom can elevate this pedestrian sporting comedy above merely mediocre. And mediocre is probably being kind. The film’s inherent joke, that of Stallone and DeNiro making “comebacks” into the world of boxing, is mined often and early, leaving the latter two thirds of this mess to simply amble along, content to trot out multiple cliches and offer little salve to the crushing disappointment Grudge Match ends up being. The story’s meandering narrative, which cobbles several amusing moments of interplay between Razor and The Kid (one doesn’t lose the irony of DeNiro’s appellation of a child, considering his advancing age) that feels to stretched into implausibility than it does any real angst or animosity. Stallone and DeNiro certainly give the script all they can, but there a sense of inorganic thrusting of opposing attitudes, rather than a natural, organic hatred that feels real. The bitter pill of a woman coming between them is as hokey a plot device as you’re likely to get (you can feel where the story is going long before it eventually resolves itself), and the gradual build-up to the eventual rematch takes far too long, with too little interest, to matter.
Peter Segal, the man behind such comedy classics as The Longest Yard (the one with Adam Sandler), Anger Management (the one with Adam Sandler) and 50 First Dates (the one with Adam Sandler), as well as a genuinely funny movie in Get Smart, helms this thing as if he can’t believe he’s got both Stallone and DeNiro in the same film. There’s a heavy handedness, a lumbering desire to put everything on the screen, that works against the humor; at the two hour mark, the film stretches itself way too thin with too little funny material: perhaps if it had a good thirty or forty minutes trimmed, excised much of the fluff around Basinger’s character (she’s terrible in this film, by the way) and trimmed a lot of the “comedy” down to a few nice funny lines, Grudge Match might have had a chance. Instead, scenes go on too long, with too little impact, leaving the cast floundering in a pool of their own joke sweat, unable to deliver solid gold when its sorely needed.
Stallone is his typically incomprehensible self, his dialogue barely coherent other than the occasional vowel or syllable. Half the time I had no idea what he was saying, although watching him flex his physique throughout the screen reminds us all of just what a commanding set of steroids does to the human body. DeNiro looks like he’s gone about a week using the FatBlaster before stepping onto the set, and while he does his best with his lines, you get the sense he’s just doing this for the paycheck. Co-star Kevin Hart is annoyingly zany, setting racial profiling back a generation, Alan Arkin holds his own even against the growing tide of disinterest, while Jon Bernthal (from The Wolf Of Wall Street), LL Cool J and a cameo by a thin-n-tidy Anthony Anderson provide layers of depth to a fairly thin plot. The cast deserve better than this film, though. Stallone should stick to his action stuff, and DeNiro needs to get back to being the hard-ass gangster archetype he does so well (and did in American Hustle). Basinger just needs to give the whole acting thing away completely.
It’s such a shame this film is an opportunity wasted. Seeing Stallone and DeNiro together in the same frame, particularly in the same boxing ring, should have been a geeky moment of pure fun and enjoyment. Instead, the pandering sporting cliches, trotted out verbatim almost every other second, reduce this witless, charmless mess to the most mild and innocuous of comedies. While it does have its moments (a couple of mid-credit scenes are probably the only genuinely amusing things in the whole film!) the net result of an unfocused script and too much padding is a film that offers only scant laughs, less dramatic beats, and winds up sprawled on the canvas, licking its wounds from better boxing films having pummeled it to an early TKO.