Grudge Match

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in Grudge Match
"It’s wobbly on its feet, but it’s definitely got heart."

30 years ago it would have been inconceivable to picture Robert De Niro – undisputed heavyweight thesp of his generation – standing toe-to-toe with Sylvester Stallone on a movie poster, Scorsese’s Raging Bull against the multiplex’s Rocky Balboa. In fact, he’s second billing to the rejuvenated Italian stallion, but it’s easy to forget the two worked together previously on image-bucking Stallone vehicle Cop Land. Grudge Match has received a swift critical drubbing, its battering no doubt a foregone conclusion given the awful posters and trailers, but it’s actually a sweet and somewhat life-affirming crowd-pleaser: it’s wobbly on its feet, but it’s definitely got heart.

Washed-up boxing legend Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp has been out of the ring for 30 years, having retired at the peak of his fame while embroiled in a bitter rivalry with the more debauched and unhinged Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen. Making ends meet at the shipyard, Razor is approached by motor-mouthed aspiring promoter Dante Slate Jr, whose father had a history with the boxer that leaves Razor none too open to the youth’s offer of a motion-capture job in a new video-game. Reluctantly accepting the cash, Razor’s visit to the studio ends in disaster when The Kid turns up too, leading to them trashing each other and the high-end equipment like a pair of bulls in a new-age China shop. When footage of the oldies at war goes viral, Slate pushes for a big-money rematch to finally settle which one is the greatest.

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Grudge Match scores a few early points with some easy but entertaining satire of social media and the older generation’s ignorance to modern technology, but it’s not hard to see why some critics have immediately turned up their noses. Aside from the obvious and often un-PC humour – which is at least doled out evenly to all-comers - there’s one big problem (or little, as he’s always keen to exploit), and that’s witless US comic de jour Kevin Hart. Flailing about like a child who can’t figure out how to lace up their gloves, his presence represents a pandering to modern comic sensibilities that’s wholly unnecessary given both Alan Arkin’s evergreen appeal and the central duo’s natural timing. The early stretch especially suffers from over-exposure to the manic ‘funnyman’, his retorts as poor as his co-stars’ predictable put-downs.

Once he fades into the background, Get Smart director Peter Segal does an admirable job of keeping sentimentality at bay while genuinely fleshing out his characters. The prospect of the rematch greatly excites The Kid, still as hungry for fame and its trappings as he is for revenge. Razor isn’t so sure, but the lure of financial security gets the better of him, leading to reunions with his old flame and older coach. Meanwhile, The Kid finds out he has a grown-up lovechild and grandson, while Razor reflects on his wounded pride and what might have been if he’d corralled his emotions.

Stallone and De Niro’s interactions with these orbiting characters from the past allow them to do some of their best acting in years (which admittedly isn’t saying much), Sly in particular conveying Razor’s internal struggle between his values and his swelling emotions with real care. De Niro hasn’t been this entertainingly wily in years, playing a deeply flawed man who’s never really grown up, whose irresponsible nature provides some of actual edge-of-seat drama especially when it involves the son and grandkid he’s never known. Cynics will scoff, but Segal’s commitment to the script’s more serious side is admirable.

Kim Basinger pops up in a nicely judged supporting role, every inch the Eighties siren still but displaying a becoming maturity that balances her soft side with a steeliness no doubt won through her real-life travails. When Razor starts banging on about machismo as an excuse for sacrificing their relationship, she’s quick to volley with her own reasons for her reactionary behaviour, highlighting how hurt she was but also how bitterly rejected women can abuse themselves. All of this playing out through reflective dialogue also stresses how much damage show-business can do, and it’s impossible to extricate the actors from their characters in this regard, adding an extra layer of pathos to their performances.

Ever the trump card, Alan Arkin dodges and weaves through all this to keep mawkishness at bay, his crankiness infused with an occasional childishness that’s disarming and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. John Bernthal balances much of the mirth with his grounded presence as The Kid’s intermittently estranged but yearning son and LL Cool J is solid as a doubtful gym-owner, while a stream of celebrity cameos will be gratifying for those in the know and lend the plot a sense of authenticity while further emphasising how much the sport of fisticuffs has changed, so much so that boxing itself may be becoming redundant.

Of course, boxing films fall back on clichéd training montages and build-up battles; while Grudge Match has no shortage of the former – complete with knowing in-jokes that reference its stars’ iconic roles of yore - the focus on one climactic bout means it has to work to stage the latter. These come in the form of verbal exchanges and battles with personal demons, which make a nice change from the norm, the banter between the opponents bristling with long-standing resentment while their attempts to come to terms with their lot have genuine resonance. It’s all quite cornball but if you roll with the punches it’s hard not to get swept along with these defiantly old-school characters, and the final fight doesn’t disappoint, both actors looking in fine enough fettle to make the brutality semi-believable.

As with the superficially similar Warrior, the result is predictable – no underdogs here - but the begrudging respect won at the end is tempered with a bittersweet sense that these two will never be real friends, not unlike the tension that lingers at the end of Rush. As a sports movie Grudge Match may not have enough action for some, and as a comedy it’s only amusing in fits and bursts, but as an all-rounder its card is pretty well stacked. It’s a little flabby in the middle (not unlike its protagonists), but with a varied soundtrack keeping the action rolling and spirited performances from the ensemble, it deserves to find an appreciative audience, even if it’s only among less demanding viewers.

Reviewed on: 13 Feb 2014
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Grudge Match packshot
A pair of ageing boxing rivals take on a final bout
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Director: Peter Segal

Writer: Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman, Tim Kelleher

Starring: Jim Lampley, Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Rich Little, Ireland Baldwin, Anthony Bean, Mason Mackie, Kevin Hart, Barry Primus, Oscar Gale, Frederick Douglas Plunkett Jr., BJ Guyer, Jen Kober, Anthony Anderson, Carrie Lazar

Year: 2013

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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