Sylvester Stallone versus Robert De Niro. Rocky Balboa versus Jake LaMotta. The Italian Stallion versus The Raging Bull. Two of the biggest heavyweights in boxing cinema going toe to toe – as completely different characters 30 years past their prime.
Oh don’t worry, Grudge Match does everything possible to milk the epic pairing of these two iconic actors, but with a script so empty, hollow, insanely over-dramatic, and downright cringe-worthy at times, these two cinematic titans throw punch after punch – but not a single wallop actually lands. We’re supposed to be excited for some momentous tiebreaker between Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, but with absolutely no care put into building these two geriatric boxers, Peter Segal’s film is as enjoyable as a Pay-Per-View feature that ends on the very first punch – without ending quick enough to make us forget.
Boxing has created some of the greatest rivalries in modern sports, and in Grudge Match, no rivalry was better than Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro). After two famous fights, their record stood at an even 1-1, but there’d be no opportunity for a final deciding fight thanks to Henry’s early retirement. Out of nowhere, the humble boxer announced he’d be walking away from the sport, eating away at McDonnen. Fast forward 30 years and we meet Henry working in a factory and Billy loving life as a restauranteur/entrepreneur, facing an opportunity for their final deciding fight. For their own personal reasons, both boxers agree to the bout, and so begins their rigorous training before they can grace the ring once again. Can these two over-the-hill talents make it to the fight and last the entire event in the ring after being away from boxing so long?
On a scarce positive note, I’d like to thank Alan Arkin for being as hilariously old as always. Playing Stallone’s long time trainer, Arkin offers the only true moments of comedy amidst this unnecessary fight, and he’s the sole reason for my momentary laughter. You’ve got a senior citizen talking about hookers and horse piss – pure gold in Arkin’s hands!
What about everything else? I’m not really sure – what about it. When you’ve got a story that’s so horribly dramatized to the point where an episode of WWE’s Raw has more soul, it’s probably not the best of starting points. Grudge Match starts out as a comedy about two aged boxers trying to perform some miraculous comeback, but as the film slowly transforms into a bad Lifetime sports drama, predicting what stale methods of emotional manipulation our writers sucker-punch us with becomes a maddening game. Most frustrating of all is trying to accept these big, character-altering reveals as they’re just made in passing, in an almost forgetful way like, “Oh yea, forgot to mention Billy – you’re a grandfather. Thanks for the car! OK, bye!” Obviously our storyboarders needed to speed up the boring important information to squeeze in as many “old people” jokes as possible – because making fun of the elderly brightens anyone’s day!
Stallone and De Niro are forced to play two characters who are completely non-sensical, and the rivalry dynamic between them feels horribly forced. There’s one specific scene where De Niro, Kevin Hart, and Stallone are all talking at the same time, with Stallone mumbling on inaudibly in his typical manner, De Niro pushing his annoyingly dicksh comments, and Kevin Hart attempting to be the comedic relief. The scene perfectly encapsulates the headache inducing weightlessness of Grudge Match, as the characters pointlessly try to talk over one another in a scene that becomes more and more frustrating by the second. Of course, this is right after we watch a doctor stick his fingers up Stallone’s ass for a prostate exam, exemplifying just how low these two stars are willing to go for a “laugh.” Come to think of it, maybe Stallone’s prostate exam scene is a better defining moment for the film, because that’s how butthurt you might be feeling after spending $14.50 for a ticket on this stupefying drivel.
Give credit where credit is due though, because Stallone and De Niro actually do get in the ring at their advanced age, but with Segal’s obsession with fake CGI work, the magic is lost. In the opening scenes of Grudge Match, we watch “footage” of the two boxers in their earlier fights, and it’s nothing but Stallone and De Niro’s faces pasted on other actor’s bodies – complete with Rocky and Raging Bull screen shots. At the end, one of these characters appears on Dancing With The Stars, in their current state, but instead of having the actor dancing in real life, we again get a horribly rendered CGI face on another actor’s body. These moments are nothing but fabricated lies, attempting but failing to make you believe the actions on screen are actually happening. Forgettable, wasteful, soulless cinema.
My favorite moment of Peter Segal’s dreadful slugfest? An after credits scene featuring two actual boxers in hilarious cameo appearances – nothing to do with the film itself. Why else did I like that scene? Because I knew it signified Grudge Match had finally ended, as the final anti-climactic fight adapts this Hollywood happy-ending cliché that just wouldn’t let go. There’s a horrendous line where Stallone and love interest Kim Basinger (still as beautiful as ever) joke about “depressing the pigeons” after Basinger drops an emotional bombshell on Stallone, and in this case, we are the pigeons. We go into Grudge Match for the monumental slugfest, but we’re given a story that drags, handles itself with zero grace, and meanders on without an iota heart.
There was a time where watching Stallone and De Niro fight would have been a showstopper, but at this point, we’re left to wonder why this fight is happening now, years past the gimmick’s expiration date – and Grudge Match does absolutely nothing to counter such an argument. We’re left with nothing but an over-bloated Hollywood cash-cow hoping to exploit two phenomenal actors and the famous characters they once played, cheaply harking on every age-centric joke in the book.
There are plenty of jokes to be made about Grudge Match being "down for the count" or "K.O.'ed," but the sad lows this movie hits aren't a laughing matter for any of the stars involved.