In Grudge Match, Pittsburgh boxers Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen (Robert De Niro) are the best of enemies, fighting in their prime in the early 1980s. After each lands a victory over the other, they prepare for one final showdown – one that doesn’t happen, after Razor suddenly (and inexplicably) announces his retirement.
Jump ahead to the present and Razor is now a blue-collar factory worker living on the cheap and stubbornly refusing to keep up with the times, while Kid has used his fame to become a successful entrepreneur. For financial reasons, Razor is coaxed by his old manager’s son, Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), into doing motion-capture for an upcoming video game that includes him and The Kid; though, when the duo inadvertently reunite in real life, a fight breaks out almost immediately and the footage goes on to become a viral hit. Because of that, Razor and Kid are offered the chance at a rematch in the ring – and the opportunity to finally settle their score, once and for all.
Grudge Match is exactly the movie that’s been marketed in trailers – Grumpy Old Boxers, in other words (heck, Grumpy Old Men writer Mark Steven Johnson even produced this film). However, similar to last month’s Last Vegas (also co-starring De Niro), Grudge Match has just enough thoughtfulness and emotional perceptiveness to make up for the cliche elements – and thus, offers decent entertainment.
The screenplay by Tim Kelleher (First Kid) and Rodney Rothman (22 Jump Street) hits all the expected notes for a sports comedy, right on down to the (predictable) second act complications and the saccharine payoff by the end. However, Grudge Match manages to rise (slightly) above the levels of mediocrity through its self-reflexive elements.
Stallone and De Niro are, in essence, playing older versions of Rocky Balboa and Jake La Motta, though their roles are even more meta in nature than you might expect. Razor, for instance, sees value in old “junk” and admits that he is a man from a different century, whereas Kid is content to riff on his past glory, yet is able to bring out his old intensity and seriousness when necessary. The humor mined from these aspects of the two leads’ personalities is generally more effective than the obvious parodies of iconic sequences from the Rocky franchise and Raging Bull – though, admittedly, De Niro seems more self-aware than Stallone.
Director Peter Segal (Get Smart) wisely allows Stallone and De Niro to bring dramatic weightiness to the proceedings through their performances – staging the action through unremarkable but adequate composition and mise-en-scene that isn’t distracting. Segal and editor William Kerr (The Five-Year Engagement) also know better than to linger too long on the hackneyed narrative obstacles or the overused sports movie tropes (training montages, etc.) by instead keeping the movie’s focus on the main attraction – De Niro and Stallone trading physical/verbal shots or showing their tender sides. That allows the two-hour runtime to pass by at a comfortable pace.
The movie’s comedic moments are juxtaposed with more straight-faced and intimate subplots. One involves Razor reconciling with his old sweetheart, Sally (Kim Basinger), and the other revolves around Kid forming a bond with his grown-up son B.J. (Jon Bernthal) and grandson, who’ve only just learned of his existence. While the different characters have to endure the standard (read: contrived) bumps on the road during the journey, the relationships often play in a more genuine fashion than you might anticipate, given the sitcom setups. Credit for that very much goes to the talented actors involved, who (mostly) sell even the more ludicrous story developments.
Kevin Hart – playing the attention-hungry Dante Jr. – provides the same motormouth comic relief service that he’s offered in the past; depending on your feelings about Hart’s comedic style, he’s either funny or tolerably annoying. That goes double for Alan Arkin as Razor’s longtime trainer, Louis ‘Lightning’ Conlon – yet another variation on the wise-cracking curmudgeon that Arkin has made his niche since his Oscar win for Little Miss Sunshine. Beyond that, the rest of the film includes a handful of glorified cameo appearances (by recognizable faces like LL Cool J) that are usually worth an easy chuckle or two.
Between jokes that have more bite and the sensitivity of the main cast, Grudge Match is one icon-exploiting and formulaic Hollywood comedy that manages to clear the (not so challenging) bar that it aims for. To paraphrase a line from the film, it’s not Stallone and De Niro at their best, but it’s the best we got. (On a final note: stay in your seats once the movie ends, since there are two mid-credits scenes.)
In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Grudge Match:
Grudge Match is now playing in theaters. It is 113 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, sexual content and language.