Friday, August 22, 2014

Grudge Match

Directed by Peter Segal.
2013. Rated PG-13, 113 minutes.
Sylvester Stallone
Robert De Niro
Kevin Hart
Kim Basinger
Alan Arkin
LL Cool J
Jon Bernthal
Camden Gray
Mike Tyson
Evander Holyfield
Jim Lampley

Way back when, Henry "Razor" Sharp (Stallone) and Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro) were both championship quality boxers. They gave the world two classic bouts with each man winning once. Fittingly, the two agreed to a tie-breaking third fight. It was not meant to be. Shortly before it was to take place, Sharp abruptly retired. Fast forward thirty years or so to the present. McDonnen is now a successful car dealer, but he's still sore over not getting another go at Sharp. Sharp is living a nice quiet life, but in danger of losing his house after being laid off from his job. Both men, Sharp begrudgingly, agree to allow their name and likeness to be used in a popular video game. The deal is handled by Dante Slate Jr. (Hart), the son of Sharp's former promoter. When both fighters show up to record themselves for the game, a brawl breaks out that finds its way onto YouTube and even ESPN. Suddenly, Slate brokers a deal to have the two meet in the ring even though both are over sixty years of age.

Okay, so the premise is beyond ridiculous. Let's just go with it for shits and giggles. When approached that way, Grudge Match isn't half bad. The movie wisely spends most of its time focusing on the lives of these guys outside of the ring. We find out the extenuating circumstances that led to Sharp's retirement and may lead to this fight not taking place, either. We see how deep McDonnen's hatred runs for his old rival. The surprise of this is that the better more nuanced performance between our two stars comes from Sylvester Stallone. Part of it is the way their characters written. Still, it's unexpected to see Sly do most of his acting through body language and facial expressions. That latter I'm using as proof he hasn't had a botox shot in a while. Good for him. On the other hand, De Niro isn't bad, he's just the same De Niro he's been for the last decade or so.

Similarly surprising, the stand-up comedian in the cast, Kevin Hart, is upstaged in the funny department by Alan Arkin as Sharp's friend/trainer Louis "Lightning" Conlon. Hart actually isn't bad, but he doesn't give us anything different than he has in any other movie in which he's appeared. On the other hand, Arkin is magnificent. He displays wonderful comedic timing and sells every joke perfectly. I will say that some of the movie's funniest moments happen when the two of them are riffing off one another. Between, they have to do all the heavy lifting in regards to the humor as neither Stallone nor De Niro are particularly funny. The headliners handle the emotional stuff, while Arkin and Hart take care of the jokes.

Speaking of the emotional stuff, it's unexpectedly touching. For Sly, it's his time with Sally (Basinger). She was his girlfriend back in his fighting days and has all of a sudden resurfaced. I've already mentioned that Stallone gives a really nice performance. Basinger matches him and the two display a nice chemistry. Similarly, the subplot involving De Niro and his character's estranged son B.J. (Bernthal). It doesn't work on quite the level as Stallone and Basinger because it's more predictable and lacks focus, but it still adds a nice dimension.

Eventually, that premise has to take center stage. When it does, the movie is not nearly as strong as it was early on. Everything revolving around the fight is silly, at best. Unlike the subplots, it holds no surprises, either. It just drones on because it knows at some point it has to get these two old farts into the ring. It also knows it has to make it seem like it might not happen. Here is where the film gets into trouble. It does lots of things that are far too silly, even for a movie about geriatric boxers. When they finally get to their destination, the movie can't help but look goofy. For those of us old enough to remember both man achieved greatness playing a boxer. De Niro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull and, of course, Sly played Rocky Balboa in a few movies you might have seen. Those glorious roles shine a harsh light on this movie. These two old dudes having a knock-down-drag-out looks far too much like aging stars reaching back into their prime trying to recapture past glory and failing. On top of that, it drags on much longer than should be legal. We're left with a movie where the subplots are far better than the main one. The very good cast makes a valiant effort to save it, but can only lift it to mediocrity.

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