Grudge Match is based on the premise that Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro played boxers in famous movies a long time ago, and wouldn’t it be funny if they played boxers again now that they are old? I readily accept the first part of that premise — Rocky and Raging Bull are indeed movies that exist — and the second part is not unworkable. Stallone’s current strategy is to make films that emphasize his advancing age, and De Niro’s shtick is to make lowbrow comedy versions of his iconic roles from the past. So, sure, Grudge Match, why not?
Disappointingly, the finished product is sloppy Hollywood dreck filled with obvious old-age gags and jokes that are surprisingly raunchy for a movie that also wants to be heartwarming and family-centered. It feels like a braying network sitcom, complete with supporting cast made up of stock characters, including Precocious Child, Old Man with No Verbal Filter, and Fast-Talking Black Guy.
The boxers, Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro), were bitter rivals, personally and professionally, in the early ’80s. They fought twice with one victory apiece and had scheduled a tie-breaking bout when Razor suddenly retired from boxing. Now, on the 30th anniversary of the grudge match that never was, an up-and-coming fight promoter named Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) persuades the two enemies — who can’t stand to be in the same room together — to come out of retirement and settle the old score.
This leads naturally to an abundance of lowest-common-denominator verbal sparring, mostly based on McDonnen being out of shape and Razor being a penny-pinching fuddy-duddy. The formulaic “grumpy old men” material wears thin quickly, so to make sure we’re awake, the jokes occasionally veer into more distasteful territory, as when a public brawl lands Razor and McDonnen in jail and Razor says to the other inmates in the holding cell, “Will one of you fellas hurry up and rape this guy?” (No one does.)
The film, directed by Peter Segal (Tommy Boy, My Fellow Americans, Anger Management), is weighed down further by a bevy of sentimental subplots — as it turns out, we’re actually supposed to care about Razor, who’s uninteresting, and McDonnen, who’s a jerk. Razor reconnects with his old love, Sally (Kim Basinger), and with his old trainer, Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Alan Arkin), now a crabby crank in a nursing home who accuses his male nurse of molesting him while giving him a sponge bath. (“I’m just doing my job.” “Yeah, that’s what my Scoutmaster said!”)
Meanwhile, McDonnen gets to know his grown son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal), who has only just now learned who his father is and who has a little boy of his own, Trey (Camden Gray). There is a delightful and wholesome scene where McDonnen jokes about what “B.J.” could stand for (snicker BLOW JOB snicker), then tells young Trey that it means “butterscotch jellybeans,” prompting Trey to say, “I want B.J.’s for my birthday!” Har!
I repeat: HAR!
It’s not the jokes’ tastelessness that hurts the film, it’s that they don’t fit with the movie’s innocuous, middle-of-the-road tone. Not helping: the jokes aren’t funny, either. Stallone and De Niro are both still capable of giving sharp performances when they want to, and this would have been a fine opportunity to prove it while indulging in a bit of nostalgia at the same time. But the weak humor, thin characters, and tired scenarios make this a grueling bout to watch. You’ll want to “throw in the towel,” and other boxing expressions.
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