I have to admit, I though the conceit of Grudge Match was a pretty good one. It’s difficult to tell if it bombed because everyone else thought differently, or it was simply that the finished picture is frequently on the ropes. Maybe the Stallone renaissance was so 2007, or maybe the puzzled one was trying his hand at his most rewarding genre; comedy. Maybe the most interesting thing about a De Niro performance these days is how much his nose has grown over the past decade. Grudge Match isn’t actively bad, well sometimes it is, but it’s obvious in the most tiresome of ways. A movie that might have been quite clever and sparky just coasts on automatic pilot.
Old guys movies have been in fully aging swing recently, but they haven’t been finding the audience of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Probably because they want to be debauched and crude rather than gentle and heart-warming; others include Stand up Guys and Last Vegas (that one did reasonably well). Commonly they have found once-great performers slumming it with sloppy scripts and stodgy scenarios. This one has the irresistible pitch of Rocky vs Raging Bull (despite the unlikelihood of their respective weights with regard to such a bout).
Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sly) was beaten by Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Bobby) in 1982. Then Razor emerged victorious in a 1984 fight and subsequently retired (because The Kid slept with his girlfriend Sally, Kim Basinger). Since then, The Kid has petulantly chewed over his desire for a deciding rematch; he runs a car dealership and owns a bar so he doesn’t need the money, it’s all about his pride. He also does stand-up (see what they did they’re; they’re so clever, these writer guys!) Stallone, meanwhile, is in full blue-collar mode devoting his time to the shipyard like Springsteen never went out of fashion. So the lines are familiar straightaway; De Niro playing up the boorish wiseguy persona while Stallone does the noble warrior thing. Both these guys fought in ‘Nam, though. Ain’t that something. No cliché left unchecked.
Along for the supporting roles are Alan Arkin as Razor’s old trainer. No matter how hopeless the material, Arkin emerges unscathed (just as he did in Stand Up Guys), and here his surly banter with Kevin Hart’s promoter is one of the few parts of the picture that actually ekes laughs (although the less said about the “hilarious” bucket of horse piss, the better). LL Cool J pops up in a role that involves having his arse handed to him by an old guy, so he must be desperate for cash or have lost all sense of pride (NCIS: Los Angeles will probably do that to you).
Jon Bernthal retains dignity as The Kid’s son, although to be honest he could have equally played Razor’s. Bernthal’s a great actor, and if someone really has to remake Escape from New York they couldn’t go wrong with him. He also has a precocious brat of a son allowing for antics with Granddad Bob (much of which revolve around an extremely poor taste blow job gag). Basinger has the thankless girlfriend role (with the honour of draping herself over sweaty old Stallone) although she looks fantastic for 60, which must be some compensation.
The plot follows the expected course; reluctance to get back in the ring (on Razor’s part), followed by training montage bullshit (The Kid is out of shape, not that you’d ever have thought it looking at De Niro). Right on cue, when it looks as if everything is looking good pre-fight, everything has to fall apart before to instil some “tension” into the decision to fight after all. There are also supposed to be whole barrels of laughs involved but Peter Segal’s never been the kind of director to settle for comedy gold, not when pleasantly predictable will do. Tim Kelleher co-wrote the screenplay with Rodney Rothman; the former’s credentials, as a Two and a Half Men stalwart, are impugnable, but we might expect more from Rothman who has worked with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.
The movie is as full of adolescent vulgarity, much of it involving the aging process, as a PG-13/12A will allow. It’s akin to a “family” Adam Sandler movie, or one of those cash-grab Ben Stiller efforts. Utterly characterless. In that sense, one might expect it to do reasonably well, although both their stars have been on the wane of late too. Arkin can almost make it fly (“Man, are you going to be feisty when you hit puberty” he tells Hart). Stallone reminds us that he was only ever any good in comedies when he played the straight man; don’t waste good lines on him (although, with the likes of “Isn’t anybody here going to rape this guy?” he isn’t exactly being thrown pearls). De Niro has so little shame left, he even does a Dancing with the Stars bit.
Everyone learns something from their experience, which is nice; they go into it for the money but come out with something even better. Love, and family. And money. It’s the American Dream, or retch. The makers clearly didn’t learn that a Mike Tyson cameo is a very bad thing, however. His continued veneration is mystifying. As for the match, the only means of making it remotely convincing is having Razor blind in one eye, and even that doesn’t do the trick. Sly’s steroids are going to outmatch De Niro’s 70-year old moobs any day. I’m most likely making the picture out to be worse than it is, but it’s so utterly pedestrian and formulaic on every level that it deserves recriminations for the waste of the talent involved and the decent kernel of an idea at its centre. If you want to see a decent De Niro/Stallone movie, check out Copland.