Grudge Match is a movie based entirely around getting two old actors (Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro) from two of the greatest boxing movies ever made (Rocky and Raging Bull) back into the ring to punch each other. It really, by all rights, should have been an absolute train wreck. I’m sure you rolled your eyes the second you saw the trailer. No way in hell a cash grab like this is going to be good.
Well, it’s that time of year for (minor) holiday miracles. While the theaters are jam packed with Oscar-worthy movies you should really spend your money on, something about Grudge Match actually works. It’s not great by any stretch of the imagination, but much like its aging actors, it’s surprisingly doesn’t fall flat on its face.
Director: Peter Segal
Release Date: December 25, 2013
It’s easy to see Stallone in this movie as the guy is still built like a brick wall and dumping out action films with his shirt off left and right. DeNiro on the other hand is a harder sell. He looks old, and while it turns out he’s in pretty good shape the film’s premise seems like a stretch. Stallone and DeNiro respectively play Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp and Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen, two aging boxers who were once rivals back in their heyday. The two fought each other twice, each winning once, but when the third fight was about to happen Razor dropped out. Flash forward and through a series of improbable events and the wonders of viral video a grudge match is set up between the two boxers by broke promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart).
If the film had solely relied on old people jokes and training montages we’d be having a far different discussion, but instead, knowing its two stars aren’t actually boxing material owns up to its ridiculousness and focuses on the comedy and relationships. Does it do this especially cleverly? Not in the least, but it does it far better than a movie about two 60 plus men punching each other in the face deserves to be done. ‘The Kid’ has a plot line focusing on kindling a relationship with his son (Jon Bernthal) while ‘Razor’ works on a broken relationship with Sally (Kim Basinger). Alan Arkin, as Razor’s trainer, adds some comic relief and emotional punch as well.
It’s the film’s focus on these relationships instead of the boxing that make it better than it should be. There’s barely a training montage to be had, and by the time the actual boxing match rolls around the movie has smartly parlayed the focus from the fight to the people, bluntly hitting the viewer over the head with its cliche sports movie message of sportsmanship and family. Nothing is very subtle here, but it never hits that point where the film loses the audience. It helps that its liberally peppered with enough humor to keep you moving when the lackluster screenplay doesn’t keep you interested.
It’s also pretty smart of the filmmakers to mostly ignore the boxing since the boxing itself is pretty damn awful. Stallone and DeNiro’s previous in ring appearances weren’t exactly known for their realism, but this concluding fight is a joke. As if it wasn’t obvious enough that Stallone was about 100 times heavier than DeNiro, the fight is so cut up its hardly coherent. That’s probably the fault of the two boxers, who aren’t exactly able to jump around like they could in their youth. Still, its just enough to hit that spot where all decent sports movies hit so when the triumphant ending comes you’re suckered into it even though you’ve seen it a million times before.
DeNiro and Stallone seem to be in the same boat. The two riff well enough here and there, but it’s all so obvious at what they’re trying to do. At some points they’re spot on and at others they aren’t, but they both pull out just enough to get you going. It’s really the comic relief of Arkin and Hart that keep their characters alive. The film — to use another old person metaphor — is kept off life support thanks to the fact that the actors pump just enough life into it to get you going with the characters. It’s obvious everyone is having a bit of fun even if they aren’t fully committed to it.
Grudge Match is definitely not your best option in theaters this holiday. Far, far, far, far… far… really, really, really far from it. That being said, and despite the fact that it is cliche and obvious, the movie delivers some heart. I’m not sure where they found one that was still beating with actors this age, but it’s there.