Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro have had incredibly successful movie careers. What a shame that they have reached a point to where they would sign on for something as gimmicky and flimsy as “Grudge Match”. The trailer for the film left nothing to be desired. It made the movie look shameless and utterly predictable. Well, after seeing it I can confirm that it hasn’t an ounce of shame and you’ll see everything coming from a mile away. That said, it’s still not as bad as it could have been. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.
Stallone and De Niro have both had big successes with boxing movies – Stallone had “Rocky” and De Niro “Raging Bull”. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to see this film is clearly milking the whole Rocky Balboa versus Jake LaMotta novelty. Yes these are different characters who have different stories and different personalities. But this is clearly meant to cash in on the two older and superior movies. The big problem is I couldn’t care less about the gimmick.
The story is a pretty ridiculous and cliché-riddled. Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) were big time boxers who had a heated rivalry stemming from their two fights where each won one apiece. But right before the decisive rematch Razor retires. Thirty years later Kid is still furious that he was denied his shot at Razor. But as luck would have it a loud mouthed aspiring promoter (Kevin Hart) eventually gets a rematch. It’s first viewed as a big joke but soon, through the power of the cell phone generation, people begin to take notice of this grudge match for the ages (did I really just say that?).
Perhaps the best thing about this film are the performances. Both Sly and Bobby give committed performances even though the material is weak. To be honest I’m not surprised that Stallone would take a part like this, but it’s really sad to see De Niro reserved for such fluff. That aside, each gives all he has to try to make it all work and they are both really good. The problem is you have to wade through endless ‘out of shape’ jokes, over-the-hill gags, and some trumped up drama that is impossible to sell. It has a few funny moments and it is fun watching these two work. But it’s not too much to ask for a smarter and more engaging script.
Most of the supporting cast is very good even though they too are hampered by the lackluster material. Alan Arkin is cast as Razor’s crude trainer. Arkin is always good but here is is such a caricature. Kim Basinger also pops up and tries to save a role that is so fabricated and poorly written. We also get Jon Bernthal as a character shoehorned into the story for dramatic effect. He’s actually very good and he’s really proving himself as a better actor with each new role. All of these performances are good despite the narrative obstacles each face. I can’t really say the same for Kevin Hart who seems to be in constant standup comedy mode. Every single scene he’s in features him doing his shtick. Eventually it grew tiresome and annoying.
So how do you summarize “Grudge Match”? It’s a film featuring some good performances, scattered chuckles, and pretty capable direction. But you can dress up the pig all you want and it’s still a pig. When it comes down to it the commitment of the actors and the decent direction can only go so far. At some point you have to have good material and that’s what “Grudge Match” lacks. What we are given is hokey and forgettable comedy that’s not nearly as funny as it wants to be. I was definitely ready to throw in the towel.