Make no mistake: Grudge Match is no Rocky vs. Raging Bull, despite the marketing promising a “rivalry 30 years in the making.” True, pairing Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro as the leads (their second match-up after 2007’s Cop Land) may be stunt-casting but its the best kind of stunt-casting, playing off each actor’s shared history inside their respective celluloid ring. Frankly, even the idea of this movie would have been impossible without them. It’s just a shame the result isn’t better than it is.
The plot, plundered wholesale from Rocky Balboa (i.e. Rocky 6), sets the two past-their-prime rivals on a collision path of inevitability. The two haven’t even spoken in thirty years, having led very different lives since their last meeting.
Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone), his earnings swindled away by former manager, has retreated to a quiet life of blue collar labor and junkyard metal sculpting. But money is tight, with factory lay-offs and the mounting expense from keeping his incorrigible old trainer Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Alan Arkin) in assisted living. Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) fared better, now the proprietor of a small boxing-themed restaurant and car dealership, occasionally performing a little standup comedy – with a puppet.
Things heat up when Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), son of Sharp’s former – and now deceased – manager, shows up with an offer from a video game company to digitally recreate the two fighters via motion-capture. Naturally, old feelings ignite when the two cross paths in the studio, leading to a hilariously impromptu re-match, filmed by scads of engineers on smartphones and quickly uploaded online.
The stakes only get higher when the clips goes viral through social-media (a theme throughout), meaning a high-stakes Prime Time rematch is in the offering. It’s a solution benefiting both, letting them face another at their best, settling a three-decade old score while scoring a nice payday in the process.
From the requisite training montages, the best ones harkening back to Rocky’s glory days (raw eggs, anyone?), as well as opportunities for both aging warriors to show the whippersnappers a thing or two, its a formulaic path to the final clash. The barrage of “old” jokes come faster and harder than any of the actual punches, with plenty of melodrama distracting from the main event. Lightning becoming a stand-in for Burt Young’s Paulie, Sharp reconnects with Sally, The Kid forges a relationship with his long-lost son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal), and even a few ‘surprises’ longtime Rocky fans can see coming a mile away.
Stallone and De Niro may be the headliners, but so much of the film’s energy comes from a supporting cast who come out punching strong. Front and center are Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, easily the two funniest things in the movie. Also surprising is Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) as The Kid’s estranged son B.J., mimicking De Niro’s mannerisms and expressions with scary accuracy. I just wish I could any inspiration in Sally, played fine by an ageless Kim Basinger, who despite sharing real on-screen chemistry with Stallone her character just comes off less a genuine love interest than what she really is – a shameless opportunist.
As committed as the actors are, I wish the film was as sure-foot. Its a slightly schizophrenic affair, alternating between comedy-drama, sports-drama, and raunch comedy with a noticeable clunkiness that never quite gels. Most fingers point to director Peter Segal (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Get Smart), who’s never delivered anything more than light slapstick fare in the past and seems incapable of striking the right balance.
As for the main event itself, I’ll leave the results to audiences to discover for themselves, as the gimmick of having two “senior” pugilists battling in the ring is made far more believable thanks to some nice quick-cutting and sly camera angles. As a staged cinematic fight its inferior to any of the Rocky films, perhaps allowing the free flow of dialogue to guide viewers to its conclusion.
I suspect Grudge Match will be one of those movies that plays far better with fans than critics, at least those willing to suspend disbelief and just (forgive me) go with the punches. The pairing of Stallone and De Niro had long been fantasized about and debated, if only in the hearts and minds of devoted cinephiles, and now its finally happened, for better or worse. It may not be the movie deserving of the talent involved, but as Henry “Razor” Sharp says, it’s the best we got.