Surely, this started out as some kind of sick joke. Some screenwriter, sitting around his dingy apartment, decided that the perfect pitch for his supposed comedy would be, “What if Raging Bull and Rocky got together and duked it out?” Sounds like something out of a ’90s video game bonus level. Now imagine this idea taken a bit further. Envision a studio executive, film knowledge the result of a few years stuck in his parent’s basement watching premium cable channels and ratty VHS tapes, hearing the idea and thinking, “What if we get Stallone and DeNiro to ‘reprise’ their roles, so to speak, kind of like how Marlon Brando did with Don Corleone and The Godfather in The Freshman?” Well, when you consider that both former stars are now solid paycheck cashers, the answer is obvious. It’s called Grudge Match and it’s god-awful.
The former Italian Stallion is now Henry “Razor” Sharp, whose nemesis was the Jake LaMotta-lite Billy “The Kid” McDonnen. Together, they competed in two epic fights, which they split. Before they could enter into the title bout, the former retires. Now he’s a mere factory worker while the The Kid has parlayed his name into a decent career as a restaurateur and businessman. Razor, on the other hand, needs money, as he’s been caring for his grumpy old ex-trainer (Alan Arkin) whose in need of assisted living. In comes the son of a sleazy promoter, Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) with a brilliant idea – a video game company will pay handsomely to video capture Sharp throwing a few punches. When The Kid shows up for the same session, a scuffle ensues. Seeing a massive payday, Slate schedules the titular fight. In the meantime, The Kid brings on his son (Joe Bernthal) as his trainer, the offspring the result of a fling with Razor’s former gal Sally (Kim Basinger).
Scrapping the bottom of the barrel for both ideas and archival fight footage, Grudge Match is like a bad Onion headline come to life. It’s all premise and no follow through. In the hands of hackneyed director Peter Segal (Tommy Boy, Nutty Professor II, Get Smart), any potential nostalgia that would come from seeing these two actors “reimagine” their seminal starring roles is lost in a whirlwind of weak jokes, stupid subplots, and sad acting choices. Not even the abundant CG, meant to reduce the obvious age (Stallone – 67, DeNiro – 70) of the participants can add a technical level of achievement here. Instead, we witness the last gasps for former fame, the ultimate sell-out as two celebrated ex-superstars trade on their past for some financial piece of mind.
Stallone is acceptable in this role, having reinvented himself via trading on his old man action hero persona. From the last Rambo to the most recent Expendables, he understands what his remaining fans want and has decided to give it to them in earnest before they all die. It’s easy to see him trading on Rocky since he’s already done it five times since. DeNiro, on the other hand, is a stunner. If you could crawl into a time machine and go back to 1979, while he was doing Awards Season press for his brilliant collaboration with Scorsese and told him that, one day, he’d be trading on the role for some cheap, sophomoric spoofing, he’d probably have coldcocked you. Funny what 30 years of ruining your reputation via cheap back account filler can do to your supposed integrity (and you though the Goodfellas scene in The Family was as far as he would go? HA!).
Since it’s being played for laughs (with a little end of the line pathos thrown in to make the viewer think they’re actually watching something with depth) and trades on known quantities, Grudge Match has the distinct aura of an attempt – a desperate one, but a collective college try nonetheless. Stallone and DeNiro aren’t bad, just brazen in how willing they are to shuck and jive for this nonsense. The old trainer stuff is just silly and the sudden influx of previous biology means we have to have that moment when the parties all realize who was zooming who back then. If the script had been smarter, avoiding the easy way out at every turn, we might have had a honorable dramedy, and since the cast are more than compliant, an atrocity would have been turned into a clever commentary (again, like Brando in The Freshman).
Creative ennui rules, however, and with it comes a deadening sense of over-familiarity. It’s the result of Messageboard manipulation and fanboy quorums, like speculating on who would win a brawl between the Hulk and the Silver Surfer. At least something like Freddy vs. Jason took the concept and went full blown meta, beating The Cabin in the Woods to the punch a decade earlier. Grudge Match is like putting Timothy Hutton and Jesse Eisenberg together in a film about family dysfunction and asking them to compare psychiatric notes. There was no need for the pairing, but by shoving them into such a position, you raise a series of expectations. Sadly, neither the filmmaker nor his cast are willing to back up the overdrafts this movie keeps creating.
Thanks to a series of splashy montages and a finale which finds our heroes in the squared circle once again, Grudge Match delivers its pandering studio pabulum. Viewers who could care less about either actor’s history or their most famous roles will easily forgive that lack of legitimacy and giggle themselves into Grumpy Old Pugilists passivity. The sideshow element may be stupefying and the notion of never giving up glorified to post-AARP PG-13 levels, but the bad is buffered by our goodwill toward the faces up on the screen. It’s hard to hate these actors, but Grudge Match gives it a try. As a lump of coal in our cinematic stocking this Christmas, it will go down in infamy as one of the most obvious – and as a result, worst – bits of backwards glancing ever.