Directed by Peter Segal
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger
If Grudge Match could stand on its own, the casting of Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone would be a mistake, since it would never be able to shake itself of Rocky and Raging Bull’s iconicism. Grudge Match doesn’t want to stand alone, though. It rests itself on the assumption that, because they have boxing in them, Raging Bull and Rocky are alike, which is falsified by anything but the most shallow reading of the films. For Rocky, this may be acceptable, because the series long ago devolved into steroid-addled workout porn and ridiculously silly fights, the excellent Rocky Balboa excepted. But for Scorsese’s classic, the winks and nods are a sin. Jake LaMotta is not a Marvel superhero. And this crossover is something that was best left in the minds of late night, drug-fueled conversations – conversations that, like this film, don’t survive a dose of sobriety.
Opening to audience groans, with a CG fight between Stallone’s Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp and De Niro’s Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen. (Note that this was not supposed to be some kind of simulation. Peter Segal actually thought using CG to make them younger would be a better choice than leaving the fight off screen.) We learn that they are two undefeated fighters who have only ever lost to each other. ‘The Kid’ wanted a rematch, claiming he was not in shape for their second fight, but ‘Razor’ left boxing in his prime, for personal reasons. After an altercation in their old age, Kevin Hart’s character seizes the opportunity to put them in the ring again, for a sum of money that Stallone can’t turn down due to losing his job.
Any good sports film is not so much about the sport as it is about the turmoil of those who play. Grudge Match follows this model, but the stories it brings in are so trite that you will find yourself rolling your eyes again and again. De Niro must reconnect with his son, who he had after a one night stand with Stallone’s ex-wife, while Stallone must reconnect with said ex-wife (and they somehow neglected to stick in a referential “You fucked my wife?”). Their stories operate in parallel, not leaving enough time for either to really shine. While the ex-wife serves as the intersection of the stories, the plot structures don’t really interact. Instead, they opt to have two mini-movies, side by side, even going as far as having the predictable early third act struggles happen back-to-back, leaving no impact. We watch something bad happen to Stallone, right before we watch some other, entirely different, bad thing happen to De Niro. The consequences of these “bad things” last about five minutes. Tear jerking stuff.
In these parallel stories, however, it is De Niro’s that is far and away the most entertaining, as he doesn’t take himself too seriously and has an ability to make the clichéd material fun. As a result, the Stallone story is a chore. His character’s similarities with Rocky stop at egg drinking and meat punching. Gone is the light-hearted sense of humor and optimism that make Rocky such a beloved character. We are left with a brooding old man and a flat performance.
Obviously, these are new characters and we should not expect them to conform to the exact same traits of their previous ones. But when they are so clearly trying to draw from the classics, why not draw enough to make the film watchable? This becomes a problem, because Grudge Match relies on us liking the actors and their former characters, rather than building its own. We don’t have anything invested, but the movie wants us to. Any investment stems from our fandom of Rocky and Raging Bull, but the similarities are only skin deep, like everything else in this farce.
Without spoilers, that is about as much plot as I can say. Second chances are given, people once thought bad turn out to be not so bad, character growth occurs, Alan Arkin delivers crotchety one-liners, and Kevin Hart is stoked to be in a movie. There are some laughs, but they aren’t worth it.
This may sound like the ramblings of a film snob, which it is. But I have to plead that no one spends money on this. Every ticket purchase for this film sends a message to the chumps in charge of this poop feast, saying, “This is acceptable.” It cheapens Rocky. It cheapens Raging Bull. It cheapens film. And it cheapens its audience. Exploitation, exploitation, exploitation. Attending the theaters on Christmas day takes far more effort than it did to conceptualize, write, plan, and shoot Grudge Match. Since this is being marketed as a movie to see on Christmas, here are some better choices: The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, Anchorman 2, staring at a wall, Rocky, and Party at Kitty and Stud’s (the Stallone porno). If you are a fan of these two, you may find the premise of this pseudo-crossover enticing. Resist.