Out in Theaters: GRUDGE MATCH

“Grudge Match”
Directed by Peter Segal
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger
113 Mins


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.


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Out in Theaters: ESCAPE PLAN

“Escape Plan”
Directed by Mikael Håfström
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio and 50 Cent.
Action, Mystery, Thriller
116 Mins

There’s a lot to be said for how entertaining a shoot-em up picture can be if handled with tact and the right people. Escape Plan dispenses with tact and focuses entirely on the “right” people, serving as a vehicle for the film’s stars to get into fights and be brooding, tough-guy stereotypes over a page-one rewrite of Escape from Alcatraz. Crass in all the wrong places, Escape Plan is a superficial viewing experience that takes the prison break formula to its extreme, both in plot elements and in believability. Where it should soar in scope, it exploits its star power, avoiding “setting the scene” or providing any action sequences that are even on par with the films that Escape Plan tries to emulate.

The film stars Sylvester Stallone as a prison break-out expert who literally wrote the book on reinforcing prisons alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger as his later accomplice, Jim Caviezel as their diabolical warden, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Stallone’s business partner. D’Onofrio and fellow cast members Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, and 50 Cent barely get a couple one-liners each on screen in a film focused entirely on Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s conflict with Caviezel, which isn’t terribly surprising. It’s obvious this is a B-movie, one that seems to exist entirely so that Schwarzenegger and Stallone can remind fans that they’re tough action heroes, even though both are in their sixties. The casting is rife with stereotypical roles that are never fleshed out, and even for a pulp film the portrayals are pretty shallow.

Stallone, we’re told, has made a living for the better part of the last decade breaking out of prisons and writing about prison security as part of his partnership with D’Onofrio at the security firm they jointly own. When a job comes Stallone’s way from the CIA to break out of a private prison where the “worst of the worse” are held, Stallone signs up after about a minute’s hesitation, only to discover that he’s been set up. He meets Schwarzenegger in this supposedly state-of-the-art successor to the black box prisons America utilizes and the rest of the movie is them using ingenuity, their muscles, and all the guns they can find to get out of the place alive. No elaborate stage-setting here, just Schwarzenegger and Stallone as they face the worst excesses of American imperialism. Their back stories and even names pale in importance in comparison to their stoicism and prison beat down skills.

The film deals with a number of surprisingly dark topics – private prisons, prison brutality, lack of transparency and accountability, American imperial overreach – with cavalier and fascicle levity, the themes serving as shallow reasons for the two aging stars to get themselves into a hard spot they have to punch and shoot their way out of. The formula of a prison break has been given much higher stakes here than in many previous iterations – Stallone is an expert on prison breakouts and the prison he’s at is the best private prison for the worst (read: mass-murdering, insane, anti-American) prisoners. While this would tow the line for a lot of B-movie criteria if it were more tongue-in-cheek or even slightly more visually descriptive, instead we’re left with a simple treatment of extraordinary problems without the assurance of a campy joke or at least some amusing action thrills.

The problem that this film has as its core is that it pretends to take itself seriously and then fails to deliver on its gravitas. Instead of embracing it’s camp and going over the top, the fight scenes and prison breakouts are remarkably commonplace to the genre and feel muted. The strongman act that both Stallone and Schwarzenegger have made wonderful and storied careers out of needs to be balanced by overwhelming action – typically violent – that these silent-types end up employing in the pursuit of their goal. Escape Plan falls short in this regard, making you wait instead for the one shot that reminds you of Rambo or whatever film you’d rather be seeing these stars in. There are a lot of problematic depictions of Islamic inmates and of gender dynamics that are a little too phobic and regressive for discerning tastes, and if they’d only made the action more intense and the setting a little better, it might have started to compensate for these foul-breathed shortcomings.

The prison, pitched as an ultra hi-tech Panopticon, is aesthetically unimpressive. With block names like Babylon and an aspiration to present the best prison ever built, you’d think they’d have spent a little more effort on the spectacle. Instead, you get Plexiglas boxes on stilts and prison guards who, despite their black face masks, look more like mall cops then deadly security contractors. The visuals and set pieces don’t have the kind of hellish quality you’d expect from a place where the most dangerous international figures are housed. Even the other inmates barely looked like they belonged in Oz, much less in the Alcatraz of the War on Terror era. The styling of the place wouldn’t cut in in the 80’s films that Escape Plan wants to be like, and that apparently no effort was made to bridge that gap is disappointing.

Even when those moments come up, the moments that the film was made for – Schwarzenegger machine-guns a bunch of goons, the villains gets their comeuppances, and Stallone delivers the beat down of the movie to the head guard – aren’t as satisfying when taking the movie in as a whole.  The explosions aren’t as big as they should be, the final lines aren’t catchy enough, and the fighting scenes are so poorly executed that you never really feel like the heroes are in any danger. Sure, they may have had torture to put up with, but they were never so broken down that they didn’t have the upper hand against their over-maniacal and wonderfully incompetent jailers. That the film shortchanges audiences in those smaller, establishing scenes lessens the glory of the moments that were the most visceral, leaving all but the most ardent Stallone/Schwarzenegger devotees feeling stiffed.

You want to like a film like Escape Plan if you’re into low-budget action films, but they didn’t put in enough effort to sell the premise and they didn’t make the action scenes extravagant enough to compensate for that lack of scene-setting. It lacks enough camp to B-movie homage and is not bold or funny enough, unintentional or otherwise, to be a regular B-movie. This is the kind of film that would go straight to DVD if it had other stars then the ones it has, making the many missed opportunities for action or spectacle hurt even more. If you have to see everything that Schwarzenegger or Stallone has been in, you’ll see this anyways. If not, do yourself a favor and rent Predator or First Blood instead.


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