Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Peter Segal
Stars: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kim Basinger, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Jon Bernthal.
This surprisingly enjoyable comedy/drama about two aged boxers reluctantly dragged out of retirement for a show down can best be described as essentially Rocky versus Raging Bull.
The concept works because of the astute casting of two of the screen’s most memorable and charismatic boxers Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in the lead roles. Stallone played boxer Rocky Balboa in a handful of Rocky movies, while De Niro won an Oscar for his bruising and blistering performance as former boxing champ Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Here the two actors bring plenty of gravitas and screen history to their roles as a pair of superannuated former pugilists, once fierce rivals in the ring, who have hated each other for thirty years.
Stallone plays Henry “Razor” Sharp, who won the first encounter between the pair in the late 70s. De Niro plays Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, who won the second bout in the early 80s. But just as a rematch to decide the contest was announced, Sharp retired from the boxing game and returned to his job in a ship building factory. McDonnen also eventually retired, traded on his fame to open a chain of car dealerships and a restaurant chain, and slowly put on weight. The two fighters have harboured a grudge for thirty years, but now there is an opportunity to resolve their differences.
Fast talking entrepreneur Dante Slate jr (comic actor Kevin Hart, from Scary Movie 4, Meet Dave, etc) is something of a shyster, who learned most of his tricks from his father – a Don King-like fight promoter who planned the original two bouts – and now he plans to use both fighters to provide voiceover work for a computer game about boxing. But when they meet in the studio it doesn’t take much before fisticuffs ensue. The footage of their stoush becomes an Internet sensation, and before long Dante sees an opportunity to stage a belated rematch between the pair.
McDonnen still itches to get back in the ring and settle for once and all the question of who is better, but Henry has left that world behind and is initially reluctant to even contemplate another fight. But mounting debts and layoffs at the factory soon force his hand, and he reluctantly agrees. However, the various publicity stunts that Dante dreams up to promote the fight soon have him questioning his involvement.
Henry lures his former trainer Lightning (Alan Arkin, in fine form) out of his retirement home to help him get fit. Of course there was a woman involved in the fallout between the two fighters, and now Sally (Kim Basinger) reappears, although her loyalties seem divided. And McDonnen also gets to connect with the son he never knew, when BJ (Jon Bernthal) becomes his trainer. The film deals with themes of family, regrets of the past, unfulfilled ambitions and second chances.
Grudge Match has been written by tv writer Tim Kelleher (who has written for The Arsenio Hall Show, In Living Color, Two And A Half Men, etc) and first time feature film writer Rodney Rotham, a head writer for Letterman. It is indeed formulaic stuff, but the pair astutely work in plenty of sly nods to those classic boxing movies of the past, and they tick off the usual cliches of the genre. There is also plenty of self-deprecating humour, but some of the jokes seem rather lame.
The gimmick casting of Stallone and De Niro adds a certain curiosity factor to the film, although the more cynical may think they are cashing in on past glories. And there is some irony in that they are playing characters whose careers have faltered, and the parallels to their own respective film careers are obvious as neither has done anything of distinction of late. Indeed De Niro has far too often been drifting on autopilot in substandard fare, although his recent turn in Silver Linings Playbook reminded us of how good he can be when given the right material. And Stallone has been making enjoyable but unremarkable action fare like The Expendables, which provided work for a number of superannuated action stars.
But Grudge Match gives them their best roles for some time, and this is the first time the pair have appeared together on screen since 1997’s Copland. They both throw themselves into proceedings with a rare sense of energy, and it is obvious that they are enjoying themselves and are engaged with their characters. Stallone even manages to deliver a credible, emotionally laden and solid performance as a boxer confronting the mistakes of his past.
There is some clever CGI and manipulation of grainy stock footage and archival footage that recaptures the glory early days of the two in their memorable roles in the opening scenes. And there are some great training montages that pay homage to Rocky in particular, as Stallone even downs raw eggs and enters a Pittsburgh meat locker. All that’s missing is Bill Conti’s stirring theme music.
Arkin is a hoot here as the foul-mouthed curmudgeon, and easily steals the film with his wonderful performance and his scathing delivery of one liners, politically incorrect insults and putdowns. His scenes with the motor-mouthed but ingratiating Hart are amongst some of the film’s funniest moments.We haven’t seen a lot of Basinger lately, and she seems a little uncomfortable in her fairly thankless role here. She has played stronger and more compelling and sensual female characters in the past, especially with her Oscar winning turn in LA Confidential. Bernthal (from tv series The Walking Dead, etc) lends some emotional heft to the material as the estranged son looking for validation from the two father figures who have disappointed him throughout his life. In his first feature film, young Camden Gray is weak as Billy’s grandson Trey, and at times he looks like a deer caught in the headlights with his unnatural performance style.
The director is Peter Segal, a workmanlike director whose credits include a couple of Adam Sandler comedies (40 First Dates, Anger Management and the remake of The Longest Yard) as well as the Eddie Murphy vehicle The Klumps and The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult. He handles the material in straightforward fashion, and there are few visual flourishes or stylistic touches here. The bruising fight scenes are well choreographed.
The film may not deliver a killer knock out punch as there are many moments that misfire throughout, but it is enjoyable enough. But the chief delight in Grudge Match is in watching this pair of screen legends and grumpy old men duke it out, both in and out of the ring. And there is also a great final scene during the end credits, featuring two boxing legends who willingly send up their own image for a couple of big laughs, that is worth sticking around for.