by Gregory Lamberson
There isn’t an unpredictable beat or joke in Grudge Match, the geriatric boxing comedy in which Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro jab at their famous performances as Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa and Raging Bull Jake LaMotta, but that won’t prevent their fans from enjoying the film’s central conceit. The filmmakers have mixed the formula of the Rocky sequels with Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, and the result approximates Grumpy Old Men with training scenes. I was reminded of a TV skit Bob Hope once did which depicted Rocky and Apollo Creed still going at it as geezers. In the end, it’s a comedic take on the same subject matter Stallone mined in Rocky Balboa.
Stallone is Henry “Razor” Sharp and De Niro Billy “the Kid” McDonnen, two former boxers lured out of retirement to settle their decades-old rivalry despite their age (In real life Stallone is 67, De Niro 70.) Each has a private score to settle with the other, but those hardly matter; only the verbal sparring sessions, training montages, and climactic fight do. Although the film fits the Rocky series to a T (HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant reprises his Rocky Balboa character of Larry Merchant), Stallone does a commendable job of making Razor a different character than Balboa—he’s a little smarter, a little less lovable, and more cynical. Stallone’s fans should be pleased to learn his body is in fine chiseled form. De Niro’s Kid is gruff, but he’s no monster like LaMotta. His performance is a quirkier version of the one he gave in the Meet the Fockers films.
Alan Arkin fills in for the late Burgess Meredith as Stallone’s trainer, and a scene in which Razor convinces him to help for “one last fight” has been lifted almost in whole from Rocky III, which the target audience will probably appreciate rather than criticize. Kevin Hart, as the promoter who woos the Pittsburgh battlers with a big payday, scores as many laughs as he strains for. Kim Basinger isn’t given any funny business as the woman who came between Razor and the Kid 30 years earlier (I don’t quite understand why anger would prevent boxers from fighting), and the film is too broad for her to match Talia Shire’s performance in Rocky even though her part serves the same purpose.
The first act labors to set up the premise, and some scenes end without a punch line, but the film becomes amiable enough once the grudge match has been set. Each lead has a scene which allows him to show some acting chops near the end, when the film finds its footing. The big fight is well staged, with each star appearing to do all of his own stunts in the ring; I found myself distracted wondering what technical wizardry may have been utilized to achieve this. There’s even a joke for Buffalonians—but will it play in Peoria?
Watch the trailer for Grudge Match
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