A Strange Review: Grudge Match


Well, somebody had to pay to see this thing.

As if the premise were not telegraphed with every one-sheet: Thirty years ago, thee sports rivalry was between light-heavyweight boxers Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro). The Kid took their first match, while Razor won the second. But just before the grudge match (get it?) could come off, Razor announced his retirement — and the question of who was the better fighter remained unanswered.

Fast-forward to 2012–13: both ex-pugs live in their native Pittsburgh but that’s where the similarity ends. The Kid runs a popular bar and a used-car business and isn’t doing too badly — except for the fact that he is alone in his old age. Razor, however, works in a factory and lives in a craphole under a bridge. When HBO runs a 30-year retrospective about the duo, interest is raised in getting them back into the ring: for a video game.

The chief negotiator of this virtual resurrection is Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), son of a Don Kingish boxing promoter notorious for ripping off his fighters. At first Razor has no interest in getting into the same room with the Kid, never mind the same ring. It seems that the Kid stole away Razor’s girlfriend back in the day, and that grudge lingers. It’s not until Razor’s former trainer and only friend, Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Alan Arkin), is kicked out of his nursing home, which Razor can no longer afford to pay for, that he agrees to don the green-screen/Chroma key outfit for a quick $15K — and the promise that his part of the “fight” can be shot without the Kid’s presence.

“Done and done,” Slate Jr. announces. Except the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. So when the Kid enters the studio and starts taunting Razor, all hell breaks loose, and the two sixty-somethings break up the joint, the Kid bitter over never having had a chance to prove he was the better fighter, and Razor still smarting from the betrayal with his girl.

A phone-shot video of the brawl goes viral (the gift of new media to film narrative) and, before you get can say “quick payday,” a real fight materializes for the two, for a lot more money.

The rest is fairly predictable. Along the way, the Kid meets up with the son he sired with Sally (Kim Basinger), Razor’s ex. The son agrees to train the decadent semi-drunk when another gym owner/trainer (LL Cool J) refuses. Meanwhile, Sally tries to woo back Razor now that he’s “trending on Twitter” and her son is involved in this ridiculous stunt.

The big fight is almost derailed when Razor becomes convinced he should pull out, thereby once again depriving the Kid of his chance to vindicate himself. In fact, the Kid shows up at Razor’s door and pleads with him not to let Sally come between them again. But Razor has a very different concern this time around. Nevertheless, when he sees how much the rematch means to the guys he worked with at the plant, most of whom have been laid off, he relents. He owes it to everyone whose dreams didn’t quite work out and who need to believe it’s never to late to start all over again.

By the time the fight comes off, one is more curious about the outcome — what twist will be introduced to justify a victory for one fighter as opposed to another — than excited. And while the ending is about as satisfying as one could hope given the zombified premise, that’s not saying much.

Where to begin? I don’t know what’s more incredible: that there were two white light-heavyweight champions in the 1980s or that the two actors with the most identifiably Italo-American personae in Hollywood are playing fighters named McDonenn and Sharp. Did they at least have Italian grandmothers? (Yeah, I know, De Niro’s part Irish. Stallone’s part French — what’s your point? He ain’t playin’ Louis XIV anytime soon neither.)

I remember reading about how Tim Kelleher had sold this spec script about two years ago — and that De Niro and Stallone had signed on to play the principal roles. Talk about your Hollywood dream coming true. Yet the credits now read “Screenplay by Kelleher and Rodney Rothman” and “Story by Tim Kelleher.” So let me see if I’ve got this straight: the original script needed to be fixed — and this piece of drek is the result? I’ve heard of script doctors before, but what is Rothman, a script hitman?

Aside from the fact that virtually every aspect of this thing feels like we’ve seen it before, and not just before but a week or two ago, is the fact that there is nothing amusing or entertaining about De Niro or Stallone spoofing their own careers anymore. De Niro has made a second career of doing this, with films like Analyze This, as just one example. And wasn’t Rocky VI  Stallone both reviving and commenting on his screen boxing persona? There are so many allusions to Rocky in Grudge Match, I’m surprised Stallone didn’t get a screenplay credit.

The jokey dialogue is so sadly bad and crudely unoriginal that I started to rewrite the lines in my head so I’d have a better time. There are two genuine laughs in the whole misguided project, both involving Kevin Hart, a comic actor who no doubt has a big career ahead of him if he can be more judicious in his choices. (In the event you do choose to see this, don’t walk away once the credits role. There’s a genuinely funny bit that follows, in which neither De Niro nor Stallone figure.)

The supporting cast members seem to be doing all the heavy lifting here. Hart brings what energy there is in this moribund money pit. Alan Arkin is always fun to watch, simply because he’s, well, Alan Arkin and can’t help but be entertaining, even in this third-rate version of Rocky’s trainer Mickey. Kim Basinger is sympathetic and appealing, but definitely slumming — why isn’t this woman getting A-list roles?

Jon Bernthal as Sally and McDonnen’s son is quite charming and plays his role with a dignity that this silly Hollywood deal hardly deserved.

As for the stars: I’d say De Niro was phoning this in, but only if he was using two tin cans and a string. I swear he read his lines through much of this. His eye line rarely meets the actor’s he’s talking to but always seems to focus just over his or her shoulder.

I have a few kind words for Stallone, as he takes up this all-too-familiar role with a sincerity that has always made him more than his easily mocked affect. He has always been able to dredge up his own Hell’s Kitchen beginnings to unearth an insecurity and “how did I get here” quality that has added a little more to his performances than his typically two-dimensional roles would otherwise convey. (Witness the scene between Stallone and De Niro in Copland, which the former steals right out from under the latter.) But even though he seems  invested in Grudge Match, Stallone also seems so damned tired. And those of us who count themselves fans are definitely tired of seeing him play these cartoon versions of his best roles.

If you are in the least interested in taking a peek, wait for the DVD. There will probably be some fun extras and side dishes that might almost make up for the fact that entrée is so unconscionably stale.


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