Review by-Jarrett Leahy
Pittsburgh boxing legends Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen and Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp were bitter rivals who split two epic title bouts back in the 1980’s. Right before their decisive third match, Razor inexplicably retired from boxing, all but disappearing into relative obscurity. Now thirty year later, the two are persuaded by Dante Slate Jr., a young, cocky promoter, to provide motion capture performances for a boxing video game willing to pay for their likenesses. While on set, an unplanned reunion between the two ignites an impassioned altercation, causing a internet sensation when a video of their violent encounter goes viral. Trying to strike while the iron is hot, Slate cajoles these two aging legends out of retirement to finally fight their long awaited “Grudge Match.”
In recent years there has been a growing market for what I can only describe as old man action films (i.e. Red 1 & 2, Expendables 1-3, etc). We, for some strange reason, get a charge out of seeing our aging heroes still trying to kick some ass despite their obvious shortcomings. Grudge Match is the latest in the line of geriatric action comedies, playing off the, ‘wouldn’t it have been cool to see Stallone’s Rocky fight Jake La Motta, De Niro’s Oscar winning character from Raging Bull?’ Admittedly this may have been a cool idea 20 years ago when these two were still close to their prime. Now however it’s hard not to feel a bit dejected seeing a 67-year-old Stallone and a 70-year-old De Niro subject themselves to this type of comedic spectacle. To put into perspective how old these two really are, when Grumpy Old Men was released back in 1993, Jack Lemmon was 68 and Walter Matthau was 73. HGH is an amazing drug.
As expected with a premise of this nature, the story is well-worn and stereotypically predictable. After retiring, the lovably modest Razor (Stallone) now lives a quiet, uncomplicated life as a shipyard worker. In contrast, the post boxing career of the smug womanizer Billy (De Niro) has been much more fruitful, with a slew of successful businesses including a car dealership and a night club complete with his very own boxing related comedy act (an obvious reference to De Niro’s La Motta character and his comedy club owner scenes). Adding to the predictability of Billy’s story arc, the script plays the clichéd long lost son card. Surprisingly though, here you will actually find one the better performances of the film. Instead of the typical angry son act, the usual tough guy Jon Bernthal adroitly brings a level of compassion to the character of BJ that I found kind of refreshing. Another of the film’s surprises comes from the timeless beauty, Kim Basinger. Through her gentle and warm presence on screen, she actually makes Stallone’s droopy basset hound stare and wooden delivery feel kind of endearing.
Supporting stars Kevin Hart and the ageless wonder Alan Arkin were brought in to add some much needed comedic timing. And while each offers amusing moments, too often the humor is sadly at the expense of Stallone and De Niro, who are subjected to an excess of embarrassing commercial stunts to help “promote” their upcoming fight, including a botched National Anthem and a parachute jump gone wrong.
The last twenty minutes of the film is dedicated to the much anticipated fight. It was reported that each actor worked with a trainer to help get him into fighting shape before shooting their scenes together with De Niro shedding over twenty pounds for the role. Their training efforts were clearly evident as Stallone and De Niro appeared remarkably agile and energetic. Other than the aging body each is now sporting, I never felt as if either was embarrassing himself on screen, and the boxing sequences looked surprisingly realistic.
I wanted to hate Grudge Match. I fully expected by the end to have a handful of cynical, snarky one liners about how it is the scourge of the cinematic earth. But, I’m surprised to admit that I don’t feel that way. There is no denying that the film is corny, unapologetically cliched, and even cringe worthy at times. But there is an earnest warmth to the movie that makes it…watchable. If you keep your expectations for Grudge Match very low, I think you may also appreciate its genuine tenderness.-JL