30 years before Grudge Match begins, two boxers, Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) had an intense rivalry. They had squared off two times and had each won a single time. Right before the third and tie-breaking match, Sharp retired. Their feud wasn’t over, but it wasn’t going to be settled in the ring. Or was it? Both people, now past retirement age, are going to get that chance thanks to an energetic promoter (Kevin Hart). They will get their Grudge Match.
Or will they? Grudge Match wants to constantly toy with whether or not the match that it’s building up to is actually going to happen. Forced drama is introduced simply so that it can make us question if we’re actually going to get to see two men, 65 years of age or older, get in the ring and box. This never works because (1) we’ve probably seen the trailer, meaning we’ve seen them in the ring, and (2) there is absolutely no way they wouldn’t let us see the main attraction. The filmmakers would be lambasted if they pulled that sort of thing.
Most of the film focuses on the two men both training and dealing with some family issues. Sharp gets to start dating a woman he has loved for 30 years, Sally (Jim Basinger), while McDonnen starts spending time with a son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal), he has never had any contact with. We spend about the same amount of time with both sides, which means that the film isn’t telling us who to root for in the final showdown. Realistically, though, does anyone here think 70-year-old Robert De Niro can really go toe-to-toe with 67-year-old Sylvester Stallone?
As it turns out, the filmmakers believe in De Niro and they actually do a competent job of making him seem like a credible threat to Stallone. During the multiple training sequences, we actually watch De Niro get into what seems like pretty good shape, especially for his age. Stallone never changes; he does a training montage or two simply because he has to. And when the final fight gets shown, the two actually seem like a match for one another.
Grudge Match is primarily a comedy. Most of the jokes come in the form of cheap shots at the aging athletes. These get stale after the first time or two. The ones that wind up hitting home the most come from Kevin Hart — a comedian who understands how to deliver lines in a funny way even if they’re not the greatest lines in the world — and Alan Arkin — who shows up as Sharp’s old friend and trained, and is funny simply because he’s Alan Arkin.
In fact, the only portions of Gudge Match that I can wholeheartedly recommend are the scenes in which Hark and Arkin have a dialogue exchange. These points are really quite enjoyable and I’d almost like to see them in a two-person play where they just riff on one another for a couple of hours. During these scenes we can completely forget about all of the incompetent family drama and “Ha, he’s old” comedy. Unfortunately, these moments only amount to a few minutes of screen time and in a movie that’s pushing two hours in length, that’s not enough.
Given the fact that the two lead actors in this movie are best known for starring in violent, R-rated features, seeing them in a tame PG-13 comedy just doesn’t feel right. Grudge Match plays to a family audience, it’s true, but it does so because it’s too tame to be particularly funny to the primary fans of Stallone and De Niro. This isn’t an unofficial Rocky/Raging Bull crossover; it’s an uninspired movie that just so happens to include the leading actors of those films, and has maybe two references to the classic movies — references that the children won’t get, by the way.
Still, Grudge Match is almost redeemed by its final fight. As cynical as I am I still couldn’t deny that watching Stallone and De Niro box each other at their ages works as pure spectacle, and if the film around them was better I’d be able to recommend seeing it. All the boxes are checked off, and on paper this is a film that should work wonderfully; the problem comes from it all feeling obligatory — like boxes are being checked off — and the comedy not being able to make up for that.
I don’t think anyone is going to be accusing Sylvester Stallone of being a particularly deep actor. Even at his best — probably the first Rocky — he wasn’t exactly great. He’s part of the reason neither the comedy nor the drama works. Robert De Niro is a good actor and he puts in some surprising physicality and a few scenes where he exhibits strong comedic timing. Stallone is here for the boxing, and it’s unfortunate that so much of the film revolves around him and his relationship with the Kim Basinger character.
Grudge Match almost comes close to working but the majority of both the comedy and drama falls flat, leading to a relatively dull two hours watching the movie. It feels uninspired, as if it’s just going through the routine. The only bright spots come from Kevin Hart and Alan Arkin in comic relief, and the end fight — which we all know is coming, meaning any forced drama the film throws at us that might end up canceling the fight carries with it no tension; we know how it ends. You have little reason to watch Grudge Match.