You know exactly what’s going on here. It’s Rocky Balboa vs. Joe La Motta, and they’re not exactly in their prime. For reasons of property rights, of course, this really isn’t Rocky or La Motta, but you and I know it is. The film takes great pains to remind us of each of these iconic characters. Sly’s character tries to take a shot at some hanging meat after drinking a glass of raw eggs. De Niro’s character is found telling boxing jokes in his own club, just as the real-life La Motta did after his fighting days were over. Both of these actors played iconic fighters in their day. It’s safe to say that both the characters and the actors themselves are beyond their physical prime. Sly is just three years shy of 70, while De Niro reached that milestone back in August. And that’s what makes Grudge Match a better film as a comedy.
It’s been 30 years since Pittsburg’s greatest fighters Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen left the fight game. They faced each other twice in their careers, splitting the victories. For each, the other was their only loss. A rubber match was going to happen, but
Rocky Razor decided to retire before the fight. Since then, La Motta The Kid has not been able to let it go. He wanted to show the world he was best. It doesn’t help that they had an issue out of the ring.
Enter Sally, played by Kim Basinger. She was Razor’s girl but ended up sleeping with The Kid and having his son. She never stayed with either one, but it’s been the real “grudge” between them ever since. Now The Kid’s son B.J. (Bernthal) wants to connect with his father for the first time. He has a son of his own and seeks out The Kid.
Meanwhile a shifty promoter Dante (Hart) is looking for a chance to hit a big score. He finally has it when a cellphone video of the two fighters getting into a tussle goes viral online. Suddenly there is interest in a rematch, and he’s going to have to bring these two rivals together to pull it off. Alan Arkin is another noteworthy performer here. He plays Razor’s old trainer and father figure. It’s safe to say he’s not far off the mark of the Burgess Meredith character from the Rocky films. Arkin provided the kind of heart that does work in this film. There really wasn’t any need to look any farther down the road.
You really can’t take any of this too seriously. The problem is that I think the cast are the only ones associated with Grudge Match that appear to get that. Screenwriters Tom Kelleher and Rodney Rothman don’t really understand that this is all for laughs. That results in the film’s attempt at suspense. Is the fight on or off? Let me assure you that I’m not dropping any major spoilers by telling you it happens. I’m not even sure why they wasted any time trying to make that outcome appear to be in danger. If you don’t have a fight, you don’t have a movie, comedy or no. There is also a little too much energy expended on the pair’s relationship with Basinger’s character. Unfortunately, she’s really a throwaway character here who only slows down the pace whenever she’s on the screen. There’s absolutely no chemistry to be found between her and Stallone or De Niro, and what’s worse, there’s nothing even remotely funny here.
The film’s laughs come strictly from the interaction between Sly and De Niro. They have far more chemistry than I would have thought possible. They play these parts as if they were born to play them, and of course, they kind of were. They both understand that they’re poking fun at themselves along the way, and it’s the only thing in this film that works. Kevin Hart is the only other actor here who seems to get it. He’s off doing those manic things that Kevin Hart does, and it serves as a better anchor between these characters than Basinger could ever hope to offer. There are some emotional moments to be found in son B.J., but the result of that character is that I don’t think I’m ever going to eat butterscotch jelly beans again. Come to think of it, I didn’t before the film anyway.
Director Peter Segal commits the unforgivable sin of not being able to commit himself. He can’t decide if he’s making a comedy or some kind of a drama. Get a clue, Peter. Two fighters pushing 70 getting into the ring ranks seriously up there in the theatre of the absurd. It would have been best to go with it and not look back. Perhaps it’s the idea of this being a Christmas movie that Segal believes he has an obligation to confuse the laughs with some emotional connection. Good idea, but he never pulls it off. Again, it’s all in the two main characters bouncing off each other. Everything else is remarkably forgettable.
The film is set in Pittsburg where Segal does use the locations to good purpose. The city defines each of these two in their respective post-fight lives and their “class” if you will. Sly continues his play on Rocky by making Razor the working-class-hero kind of guy Balboa was. He leaves the fight game to spend 30 years working in a plant. He has a middle class house in the heart of middle-class Pittsburg. The Kid, on the other hand, has parlayed his career into a continued, albeit rather minor celebrity. He owns a club and a few other businesses. Thus we have two very different motivations for these 70 year-old fighters to want the fight to happen. The Kid doesn’t need the money, but he’s been bitter for 30 years that Razor retired rather than face him in the ring again. Razor desperately needs the money but has put the fighting behind him, and of course holds that grudge about Basinger. The locations are used wonderfully to define these important character elements.
For me, however, the biggest mistake that Segal makes is that he takes away any real suspense about the fight’s ultimate victor. He telegraphs that final scene like a bad fighter telegraphs his punch. He gives us an emotional favorite throughout. It’s not very subtle. We know who Segal is cheering for, and he mars the film ultimately by beating us over the head with his choice. I won’t tell you here who wins or by what kind of margin. Suffice it to say that you’ll have it figured out long before the final bell.
In the end you have a movie that entertains when it is funny but drags when it tries to be serious. Even then the actors are spoofing themselves as well as characters they’ve played before. That means throughout the entire picture you’ll be asking yourself, “Haven’t we had this conversation before?”