On one of the posters currently advertising Grudge Match, two humanoid shapes vaguely resembling Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone face off in a boxing ring. Four of their co-stars are Photoshopped into ringside seats, with no attempt made to line up the actors’ sightlines with the action they’re supposed to be watching. It’s a lousy poster, but its makers’ lack of effort is a fair reflection of Peter Segal‘s film — a lazy attempt to milk a few dollars from memories of Rocky and Raging Bull before the moviegoers who made those films hits are too old to reach cinemas without assistance.
In a world where 2006’s Rocky Balboa can gross over $150 million, Warner Bros. may find some takers for this proposition; but Grudge‘s attempt to meld Rocky sincerity with overfamiliar Grumpy Old Men shtick (Grumpy scribe Mark Steven Johnson is a producer here) is unlikely to sit well with fans, suggesting a theatrical life that sags long before the 12th round.
The two stars play roles designed to recall the heroes of their earlier films. Stallone’s Henry “Razor” Sharp, after retiring from boxing, proved his salt-of-the-earth nature by finding work at a Pittsburgh steel mill, spending what little money he had to keep trainer Lightning Conlon (Alan Arkin) in a comfortable retirement home. Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro), on the other hand, is a self-promoting hustler who continues to milk his fame Jake LaMotta-style in a nightclub act while privately mourning the greatness he might’ve achieved. The two men fought each other twice three decades ago, each scoring one win. But Razor quit boxing on the eve of their tie-breaking third bout, for reasons related to his failed relationship with Sally (Kim Basinger).
Reluctantly agreeing to a plan by would-be promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) to do some motion-capture for a video game in which his avatar would fight that of The Kid, Razor is ambushed in the studio by his former rival and gets into a no-ref brawl. A cell-phone video of the melee spreads quickly online (cue jokes about oldsters who don’t know from “viral” or “YouTube”), generating interest in an in-the-flesh rematch. Having just lost his job at the mill, Razor has little choice but to agree to the payday he’s offered for a belated tiebreaking fight. Kid, on the other hand, greets the news by running into the street shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes” — an outburst De Niro performs with such a lack of finesse one shudders to think how the actor’s 1980 self would respond to it.
Soon we’re on familiar ground, with old and (in Kid’s case, anyway) flabby men struggling with the failures of their once-powerful bodies. If you’re interested in seeing Rocky bend over for a proctologist, you’ve come to the right place. Razor’s training scenes get a boost from Arkin’s familiar but likable crotchety-motivator routine, while Kid’s path back to fighting trim is more cumbersome. He’s approached by a 30-year-old son he’s never met, who just so happens to be a buff personal trainer: BJ (Jon Bernthal) offers not only impossibly effective ringside pointers, but an opportunity for Kid’s paternal redemption via his young son (Camden Gray).
That storyline, whose up-and-down path requires Kid to make some pretty unbelievable child-care mistakes, is the picture’s dramatic low point, but Razor’s tentative courtship of his long-lost gal Sally isn’t much better. The movie only wakes up when Hart and/or Arkin are onscreen (preferably together), the former an on-the-make schemer whose pursuit of a hit fight rubs the latter the wrong way.
Slate’s attempts to generate public interest in the fight offer a couple of laughs but quickly become predictable: Old guys do something silly in public; smartphone-wielding observers put video of it online; more tickets are sold. By the time of the two men get in the ring together, though, one has to ask who in the real world wants to see these men in boxing trunks, turning each others’ faces to pulp as the sweat and spittle flies.
Earlier this year, Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger played off their action-hero legacies in Escape Plan, a guilty pleasure that knew how to be ludicrous without leaving viewers feeling cheated. Stallone shouldn’t have tried the same trick twice in a year.
Production Company: Callahan Filmworks
Cast: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Jon Bernthal, Camden Gray
Director: Peter Segal
Screenwriters: Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman
Producers: Bill Gerber, Mark Steven Johnson, Michael Ewing, Peter Segal, Ravi Mehta
Executive producers: Jane Rosenthal, Kevin King-Templeton
Director of photography: Dean Semler
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Music: Trevor Rabin
Costume designer: Mary Vogt
Editor: William Kerr
Rated PG-13, 113 minutes