Alan Arkin, Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen, Boxing, Comedy, Drama, Henry 'Razor' Sharp, Jon Bernthal, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger, Peter Segal, Raging Bull, Rematch, Review, Rivalry, Robert De Niro, Rocky, Sylvester Stallone
D: Peter Segal / 113m
Cast: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Kevin Hart, Jon Bernthal, Camden Grey, LL Cool J
Thirty years after they fought against each other, ageing boxers Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) are tempted back into the ring for one last bout to decide, once and for all, which of them is the better fighter. When they first fought, Billy won easily. In the rematch, it was Henry who won. A third, deciding fight was planned but Henry refused to fight and retired from the ring. Billy has always wanted a third fight to happen, and when the son of their old promoter, Dante Slate Jr (Hart) offers both men a chance to get back in the ring and settle the issue, it all hinges on getting Henry to say yes. Initially reluctant, but eventually persuaded by the size of the payout – which he needs to pay the nursing home bill of his former trainer Louis (Arkin) – Henry also has to contend with the reappearance of Sally (Basinger), an old flame of his who slept with Billy and as a result, had his child (and awkwardly called him BJ). With Sally attempting to win Henry back, and BJ (Bernthal) becoming a part of Billy’s life, both fighters have to deal with long buried personal as well as professional issues before they can step back into the ring.
As a piece of high concept matchmaking, the idea of bringing together Stallone and De Niro under the veiled banner of “Rocky vs Raging Bull” was probably too hard to resist (though why it’s taken so long for someone to come up with the idea is a little surprising). You can almost imagine the delight on the faces of the studio executives at Warner Bros when the pitch was made to them. You can also imagine that the script was the last thing they would have worried about. And while the whole idea has a whiff of Cocoon-style wish fulfilment about it, the basic plot is augmented with enough emotional and comedic incident to make Grudge Match watchable if not exactly unpredictable. The storyline involving Billy’s burgeoning relationship with BJ (it obviously stands for Butterscotch Jellies), is almost straight out of Screenwriting 101, but there’s enough there to make it affecting in a gentle, enjoyable fashion. Likewise the reawakening of Henry and Sally’s feelings for each other; again, nothing original and with the usual stumbling blocks along the way to true happiness, but done with enough feeling and conviction to keep the audience invested in the outcome.
With its ageing cast required to poke gentle fun at greater glories – Stallone wanting to punch a slab of beef during a training session and being soundly told off for it, De Niro getting heckled at a speaking engagement – Grudge Match never really aims to be as dramatic as the set up might imply. Its notions of family ties and relationships aside, the boxing side of things is played mostly for laughs, particularly when both men agree to provide motion capture for a video game, or when pressed to make a public appearance together. It’s only when the fight finally happens that the comedy is dropped altogether and the two men – both in remarkably good shape – batter each other over twelve rounds. The rivalry, such a big part of the script and the plot, is allowed a proper resolution here, and it’s good to see a way in which both men can be seen to be winners.
This awkward mix of comedy and drama, both lightweight yet curiously satisfying, is saved by the sterling work of its cast. Both Stallone and De Niro are fun to watch, and while neither is stretched (in or out of the ring), they acquit themselves well. As the lost love who wants a second chance, Basinger fares well with an under-developed role, but it’s always good to see her, whatever she’s in. Left with the bulk of the dramatic content, Bernthal is still a fresh enough screen presence that you’re never entirely sure what he’s going to do next, and this helps immensely in his scenes with De Niro. The comedy then is left to Hart and Arkin, Hart edging it with a manic, ADHD-style performance that appears largely improvised and is often very funny, while Arkin replays his crotchety OAP from Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and almost steals the movie.
On the production side, the movie is well-mounted without being spectacular or too visually arresting, and the location work is suitably low-key and reflective of the two fighters’ backgrounds and current circumstances. The movie flows thanks to Segal’s capable direction and William Kerr’s measured editing, and while the photography by Dean Semler is mostly subdued by the wintry colour scheme, it’s still sharp and carefully framed throughout, with good compositions and blocking. Trevor Rabin’s score supports the action almost casually, and there’s fun to be had looking for background references to both Rocky and Raging Bull.
In the end, Grudge Match fails to live up to its potential by choosing to tread some very worn paths, and by failing to decide whether it should be a comedy with dramatic elements, or a drama with comedic moments. The script by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman could have been tightened a little, but it remains what it is: effective in a predictable, sometimes banal way, but falling short of making a solid impression. A shame, then, as the basic premise is a good one.
Rating: 7/10 – not as bad as it could have been but equally not as good as it should have been, Grudge Match won’t win any awards (probably) but it’s a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours; a movie that, sadly, in boxing terms is “punching above its weight”.