The film “Grudge Match” poses an interesting question: what if Rocky Balboa fought Jake La Motta?
It could have been a riveting experience in 1983, assuming the filmmakers used the ’76 version of Balboa as opposed to the cartoon facsimile of the many "Rocky" sequels.
Unfortunately, we are getting this film in 2013, which effectively gives us “Grumpy Old Men” in boxing shorts. Still, in spite of some shortcomings, this movie could have been a lot worse.
While the film does make use of stills and other materials from “Raging Bull” and the “Rocky” movies, for narrative purposes, “Grudge Match” creates new fictional identities for its leads. Sylvester Stallone plays Henry “Razor” Sharp, and Robert DeNiro plays Billy “The Kid” McDonnen. The two were heated rivals back in the ’80s, splitting victories in their first two bouts before Razor mysteriously ducked out of the deciding “grudge match.” In the aftermath, Razor lost his fortune and disappeared into labor-class anonymity. Kid fared better, jumping on the endorsement bandwagon and eventually opening his own successful restaurant.
Enter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart). Slate’s father was the Don King to Razor and Kid’s Mike Tyson back in the day, and now junior wants to get the band back together. At first, it’s just to provide some innocent motion capture footage for a new video game. But one thing leads to another, and soon Razor and Kid are lined up to enter the ring in a battle of the geezers.
It’s a silly, implausible concept, but that’s how it’s played. The bout doesn’t happen because fans expect a legit fight, it happens because viral footage of the fighters’ public dust-ups taps into the culture’s lust for a televised train wreck. Thus “Grudge Match” becomes less a celebration of the real and fictional characters from boxing past (La Motta was a real person) and more a critique of society’s bloodlust.
Regardless of its theme, “Grudge Match” still faces one serious challenge: making Stallone and DeNiro look reasonable. Even if the film is played for laughs, it still wants its leads to look good. For its publicity campaign, the filmmakers apparently thought some PhotoShop work would do the trick, and they were comically, hilariously wrong. But in the movie, the real McCoys are front and center, and the climactic battle royale comes off like two bags of ground beef trying to pummel each other into oblivion. It’s a far cry from the audio-enhanced punches of the “Rocky” films, even if it’s strangely more believable.
Of course, “Grudge Match” resembles “Grumpy Old Men” in more than its aging cast (which also features Kim Basinger as the mutual love interest largely responsible for the bitterness between the two fighters). Fans of the 1990s comedy may remember the constant stream of vulgarity and PG-13 level profanity from its leads, as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau played old men completely freed of any internal editors. In “Grudge Match,” Stallone, DeNiro and the always welcome Alan Arkin (playing Stallone’s former trainer) follow suit with abandon.
The sum total is a film that isn’t near as bad as its trailers and publicity suggested — Kevin Hart’s special brand of short man humor will likely polarize audiences — but still leaves audiences wistful for what could have been. Like “Last Vegas” from a few weeks back — which also starred DeNiro — “Grudge Match” tries to shoehorn a positive message into a midlevel comedy that gives its aging leads a chance to let their hair (or their midsections) down.
“Grudge Match” is rated PG-13 for consistent vulgarity and profanity, along with some comparatively tame violence (especially for a boxing movie) and mild sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.