Grudge Match (2013) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence, sexual content and language
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Jon Bernthal, LL Cool J, Camden Gray, Joey Diaz
Small role: Jim Lampley, Rich Little, Anthony Anderson, Chael Sonnen, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield
Director: Peter Segal
Screenplay: Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman
Review published December 26, 2013
Sylvester Stallone (Escape Plan, Bullet to the Head) is Henry 'Razor' Sharp and Robert De Niro (American Hustle, Last Vegas) is Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen, former boxers from Pittsburgh who have a longstanding grudge against one another, leading to a public spat that goes viral, and results in them taking their grievances out again in the ring for a nice-sized purse, thirty years out of retirement. The grudge occurred when Sharp bested McDonnen in a rematch for the light heavyweight title, then retired just before before McDonnen could come back to reclaim his belt. Kevin Hart (Let Me Explain, Little Fockers) plays a young boxing promoter named Dante Slate Jr., who puts together the PPV match called "Grudgement Day", though both fighters are not only old with a list of ailments, but also well out of shape. They both set about finding trainers and doing all of the things they need to do to pass the physical, while events of the past come back in a very big way in the form of Sharp's beloved ex-girlfriend Sally (Basinger, The Sentinel), and her son BJ (Bernthal, Snitch), McDonnen's long-estranged offspring from an affair they once had (hence, why Sharp hates him).
Peter Segal (Get Smart, The Longest Yard) directs this film that draws most of its appeal from the casting of its two main stars, both of whom once played iconic boxers in films in the past, Stallone as Rocky Balboa in six Rocky films and De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. Their Grudge Match counterparts have nothing to do with those characters, though there are allusions to Rocky when Sharp drinks a glassful of raw eggs, or when he goes into a meat locker and has an urge to punch some sides of beef, which his longtime trainer, Louis (Arkin, Stand Up Guys), before poo-poos the notion. Meanwhile, McDonnen flashes echoes of LaMotta by entertaining fans in a two-bit nightclub act.
Although billed as a comedy, one would gather from the way it plays out that Tim Kelleher's (First Kid, "The Arsenio Hall Show") original story might have been intended as a drama with comedic elements (instead of the other way around), and then comedy had been injected as all of the various parts started coming together as he wrote the screenplay with the help of Rodney Rothman ("Late Night with David Letterman"). Scenes obviously meant for drama are interspersed with moments of shoehorned comedy, resulting in an experience that, while never unwatchable, has an uneven tone and strains narrative credibility at times. Perhaps the worst of several examples of this is a superfluous scene in which McDonnen takes his way too movie-precocious young grandson (Gray) to a bar and decides to have a quickie with a random barfly hottie half his age who comes on to him (let the kid fend for himself, this young woman has to have a piece of grandpa and can't wait!). The boy finds the keys to the SUV they are having sex in and drives off, to the panic of the underdressed adults. Where is the funny in this exceedingly strained comedic scene?
The fact is, there isn't that much that is laugh-out-loud funny, as Segal's film plays out in a very lackadaisical style most of the way. It's not just the geriatric boxers who need to tone up, it's the editing, as this is a vehicle that could greatly improve by getting rid of much of the slack, and excising some of the parts that don't work. At a taut 95 minutes, this could pack a lot of punch, but with that extra twenty minutes of flab, a creaky fatigue does creep in far too often. While it's nice to see Kim Basinger as the woman forever linked with these two men who hate one another, and while Jon Bernthal delivers a fine performance as the estranged son, their characters are problematic to the overall story. All of these characters seem to have lived in a three-decades long cryogenic sleep in order to just be able to jump into each others lives in a big way and pick up where they left off. The premise of the film is thin enough without overstretching them further into manufactured moments of family drama that proceed with little rhyme or reason.
After over ninety minutes, we finally get to see what we paid to see: Balboa vs. LaMotta in the ring. The scenes of the big fight play out pretty much as they did in the Rocky films, with absolutely no regard for the art of defense, wherein the only method stop a punch is with one's face. As both men are built up with a certain amount of sympathy, we don't have a rooting interest in seeing either of the men win or lose, particularly. As we watch them smash each other's faces, and bruises begin to develop on their weathered bodies, it becomes as disheartening to watch as a bum fight.
Despite the corniness of the comedy and the occasionally stagnant direction, if there's anything to like at all about Grudge Match, it's that will have audiences attracted to it in the first place -- the likeable cast. Stallone is in his comfort zone, De Niro puts forth some effort physically, Arkin steals his scenes (as usual), and Hart lends bursts of energy that are very welcome in a film that feels a bit flat. (Someone put Hart and Arkin in a buddy movie, stat!) This is one of those cases in which someone who asked me either, "Is it a good film?", or "Did you like it?", would get two different answers. While the movie has its share of major flaws, if you're a fan of this ensemble of actors, it's a hard movie to hold a too much of a grudge against.
-- Stay through the beginning of the end credits for two extra scenes; the second of them is arguably the funniest of the film.
©2013 Vince Leo