Against better judgment, the prospect of Jake LaMotta fighting Rocky Balboa still holds a good deal of appeal. I add that caveat because over the past 30+ years since the classic that are Raging Bull and Rocky, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone have done an expert job of turning their careers into the cinematic equivalent of a veteran boxer’s brain, especially in the last decade. And yet here they are in Grudge Match, playing former Philadelphia rivals who split bouts in their prime. Pulled back in Godfather III style for one last showdown, this empty redemption tale is little more than Last Vegas with fitness “jokes,” a combination that, in a just world, would inspire a class action lawsuit from the AARP.
Even with these ho-hummeries, the big fight, inevitable despite numerous “will they, won’t they” complications, should still be a somewhat desirable main event lurking in the future. Instead, the film systematically removes all investment in Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) and Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone)…these names…really…and renders the bout meaningless. That even goes for blatant good guy Razor, set up as such a saint that the thought of him losing is punishable by four raw eggs and 15 Yo Adriens.
Still, that’s what happens when an schmaltzy slam dunk handicaps itself with daddy issues, uninspired rekindling of old flames, and precocious eight-year-olds, and that’s not yet taking into account its tragic attempt at rampant humor. With the right material De Niro can be funny, but Silver Linings Playbook this is not, Stallone is hopeless, and both Kevin Hart in overdrive as boxing promoter Dante Slate Jr. and Alan Arkin playing Razor’s once and future trainer as an echo of his Little Miss Sunshine dirty old man are doomed strategies. If that wasn’t enough, we get a terrible oral sex euphemism that gets dragged out until you can make out a faint outline of the proverbial deceased equine punching bag.
The outlook for Grudge Match doesn’t get better as these characters’ dirty little issues come out in the days leading up to the main event. Among these are Razor’s ex-flame Sally (Kim Basinger), who back in the day went so far to hurt Razor after what she falsely assumed was an affair that she had a son by Kid, then promptly kept the child a secret from his father. The natural next step for B.J. (Jon Bernthal) is to make himself known to Kid, offering his convenient athletic training expertise and toting around his comic relief son Trey (Camden Gray). If Kid is moved by this effort, even experiencing the least bit of surprise, he doesn’t show it, but when you’re up against a co-headliner who can barely move a facial muscle, perhaps De Niro’s choice is but a subtle work of neo method acting.
With so many deadbeat fogies on board, over-the-hill status must have been a requirement for the crew as well. Director Peter Segal (Tommy Boy; My Fellow Americans) hasn’t been relevant since the ‘90s and the screenplay is from Tim Kelleher (who hasn’t had a film script produced since 1996’s Sinbad-helmed First Kid) and Rodney Rothman (former head writer for The Late Show with David Letterman…13 years ago, though he’s one of several credited on the forthcoming 22 Jump Street).
To their credit, the script does yield a pair of accidental self-skewers. Early on, Dante Jr. shows Razor a video game and asks him if he knows what it is, to which Razor replies, “A bad movie?” Later, when Kid attempts to hire famous gym owner Frankie Brite (LL Cool J) as his trainer, the rapper (who, lest we forget, released a duet with Brad Paisley this past April called “Accidental Racist”) says, “A great performer knows when it’s time to get off the stage.” More lines of this nature, regardless of intent, might have done the film good, but when the overall work is trying to be a raucous comedy, family drama, romance, and sports story all at once, little room remains.
Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, sexual content and language.
Grudge Match is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.