Rocky vs Raging Bull — sounds like a great idea!
That’s pretty much all Grudge Match is — a good idea. About a thousand years ago, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro were a couple of world champion light heavyweights who fought each other twice and handed the other their only loss. For some reason, the grudge match between the two fated rivals never eventuated, and the two boxers just went on with their separate lives, still hating each other. Now, in the present, both are old and miserable, but a chance encounter at a video game motion capture session sparks renewed interest in the long-overdue third fight.
The rest of the movie acts as a lead-up to the fight, as we watch Stallone and De Niro training and trying to get into shape. The personal story arc for Stallone is trying to mend his relationship with Kim Basinger (smoking hot for a 60 year old, by the way), who might have been the reason he pulled out of the grudge match all those years ago. For De Niro, it’s all about his estranged son, played by The Walking Dead alumnus Jon Bernthal (who could not be more different from his character in The Wolf of Wall Street). None of all this drama is horrible but it feels pretty boiler plate.
It’s not clear how old Stallone and De Niro’s characters are in the movie, but they can’t be too far off from their real-life ages of 67 and 70. Which means, of course, that the ludicrous match would never have been sanctioned in real life, and there’s no way anyone would be even remote interested in the bout. But I suppose that is the point of the movie — to create a fight so insane that it’s funny.
Well, except Grudge Match, despite being labelled a comedy, is actually not very funny.
I sensed a lot of missed opportunities when watching this film, and kept wondering why it wasn’t funnier. There’s only so many old and fat jokes viewers can stand before it starts getting boring. I could almost picture the writers sitting in a room together brainstorming ideas, and chuckling to themselves because the jokes sound so good on paper. But when translated to the big screen, it all becomes obvious and cliched. And sadly, most of the mildly amusing sequences in the film were all shown in the trailers.
I think a part of the problem is this nagging desire to show that these old timers have “still got it” by making them look good. But that’s not funny! Watching people who think they’ve still got it making a complete fool of themselves is much funnier. Let’s face it, the idea is great, but it’s a farce, and a farcical movie might have worked better than a semi-serious one with a few obvious jokes thrown in. It’s pretty much a remake of Rocky Balboa (the most recent entry in the Rocky franchise), except instead of one old geezer you have two.
Speaking of old geezers, Stallone is looking great for a 67-year-old, but the problem is that he still can’t string together two coherent words together. And his character, Henry “Razor” Sharp, has zero personality. Kind of like Rocky, actually, except without the charisma. On the other hand, De Niro has a much jucier role as the playboy Bill “The Kid” McDonnen, and it seems like he’s enjoying it. He in no way resembles Jake Lamotta from Raging Bull, which is a shame because there’s tremendous spoof potential there.
The saving grace for the film is Alan Arkin, who plays Stallone’s old trainer. Arkin provides the best lines in the film, mostly one-liners, ensuring that Grudge Match is at least sporadically amusing rather than not funny at all (like the promoter played by Kevin Hart, who I actually like).
As for the fight itself, I guess it’s hard to expect too much from two 70-year-olds, no matter how fit they (or drugged up, in the case of one of them) may be. What surprised me was that the filmmakers decided to go down the completely serious route to try and make it a “proper” boxing match complete with unconvincing manufactured drama. The choreography of the fight was also just OK, much closer to the wild brawling style of Rocky than any of the more “realistic” boxing flicks of the last few years. One thing I will give the film credit for is having a proper resolution in the end and declaring a winner, rather than a cop-out ending like a draw or double KO.
With two big stars who have become Hollywood boxing royalty and an intriguing premise brimming with potential, Grudge Match could have been a ripper of a comedy if they really went for it. But in the end they chose to play it safe and the result is a decent albeit uninspiring effort that’s only marginally amusing and completely forgettable.
2.5 stars out of 5