There’s a subtle amount of humour from the mere casting of Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in Grudge Match, a tale of two far past their prime rival pugilists coming back to the ring for an easy payday. Thankfully, it’s a joke that both leads are clearly in on, and even though Peter Segal’s sports comedy hasn’t meet a cliché it didn’t like, the leads and most of the supporting cast make it a pretty buoyant and bouncy trip down memory lane. It’s still not a good movie, but it’s not as regrettable as this could have ended up.
Back in the early 1980s, Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) had an epic Light Heavyweight bout that went the distance, with McDonnen taking the win by decision. The rematch saw Razor mop the floor with The Kid in only four rounds. The rubber match between the two never happened because Razor just up and decided to quit boxing entirely; partially because McDonnen slept with Razor’s woman (Kim Basinger) and got her pregnant. Fast forward to today where Razor has lost all his money, recently got laid off from his ship building gig, and has been taking care of his former trainer (Alan Arkin). The Kid has been doing shitty stand-up and running his own restaurant, content with drinking his nights away and hooking up with anything that moves. When the son of the original fight promoter (Kevin Hart) asks them both to participate in a motion capture session for a boxing video game, the two cross paths and their destruction of the studio (and nearly each other) goes viral. The newfound interest sparks talk of a new fight, one that The Kid wants, Razor could care less about, and that everyone around them thinks is a dangerous joke.
Segal (Get Smart, Tommy Boy) can’t really keep a handle on the all over the place screenplay from Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman. There are so many different plot threads and facets to Henry and Billy’s lives that the poorly assembled film just can’t keep track of them all. Razor has to try to reconcile with the lost love of his life, train with a man far too old to train anybody, and he’ll fall victim to the requisite “health problem” that acts as a hiccup in all of these kinds of movies. The Kid has to connect to the son he never knew he had (Jon Bernthal) and his insufferably precocious grandson, reconcile his avaricious ways, and ultimately prove to be less of a chump than Razor is. What could have been a straightforward look at two guys who simply wanted to get paid, settle a grudge, and prove to themselves and the world that they still had it becomes an over plotted miasma that slows things down.
It also doesn’t help that this is the kind of film that thinks it’s super cool to not be hip, but instead comes across as pandering. Sequences where the guys have to be spoon fed explanations of what a viral video is or how UFC works work much better on the page than they do in practice. Stallone and De Niro are fine actors, but even they can’t bring it upon themselves to dumb these characters down in the way the script is asking them to. The leads are playing these characters as more than mere jokes, which makes it more of a letdown whenever the script goes out of its way to make comments about their age that eventually leads to piss, puke, and fart jokes and some ill advised lapses in judgment that seem to suggest that thinly veiled homophobic taunts are fine as long as they are coming from the mouths of old people “from a different generation” that “don’t know any better.”
Despite all that, it’s comforting to know that the cast (except Basinger who seems bewildered that she’s been reduced to these kinds of roles) are giving it their best shot. Stallone affects the same kind of “I’m too old for this shit” vibe that he’s affected for his last few movies at first, but as Razor progresses as a character he adds a little bit of pathos and a surprising amount of good will, making this the most likeable character Stallone has played in quite some time. As for De Niro, he’s having fun hamming it up, but not going too far overboard with the stereotypical retired boxer schtick. Both actors know they are playing amalgamations of Rocky and Jake LaMotta and they’re comfortable with playing off some goofy callbacks to their past successes. They’re also equally adept at mixing it up in the ring, with a final fight sequence that despite being time compressed and terrifying to watch both guys with their shirts off, is still a pretty brutal affair. Hart and Arkin pop up to deliver solid comedic relief whenever needed, and at times both men seem like they have seen their roles cut down in the editing room, especially Hart who could have a whole movie about his character alone. Either way, both are welcome sights even though the dialogue and jokes they’re often given is often beneath their talents.
If Grudge Match were a fight, it’s one that wouldn’t be pretty to watch, but had flourishes of hope and entertainment. If it were scheduled for 12 rounds it would end either via a TKO or the ref or ring doctor stopping the fight. The people in the fight wouldn’t have anything to be ashamed of, but the people making money off the affair would laugh their way to the bank regardless. It wouldn’t be a memorable bout, but most there would feel like they got their money’s worth because it was likely the only fight they watched all year. People who see more than one fight/move a year probably won’t get much out of this one, but it could have ended up far worse.