Listen, there are plenty of flaws with Grudge Match. The direction is completely uninspired. The screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The story is at least somewhat preposterous. But I will say this: Grudge Match is almost everything those who wanted to see Grudge Match want it to be. Sylvester Stallone pays due homage to his iconic boxing character, and Robert De Niro actually gives it his all in a comedy as deserving of his time and talent as the many paycheck-grabs he’s made over the last 20 years where he did much, much less.
Boosted by strong supporting turns from Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, Grudge Match was conceived and written well before the two stars were attached, and it plays out as such. Sure, there’s a nod or two to Rocky, such as when Stallone’s character, Henry “Razor” Sharp tries to punch some hanging beef before Arkin’s trainer, Louis “Lightning” Conlon, stop him. Raging Bull also gets a good reference when De Niro’s retired boxer Billy “the Kid” McDonnen, now a restaurateur, does a stand-up routine a la Jake LaMotta’s second career. They’re not too tired even when they are obvious.
Same goes for the fighters. As two long retired boxers nursing a grudge over a rubber match that never happened, Stallone and De Niro are more than up for one more fight. Say what you will about the actor/ writer/ director/ producer/ singer Stallone — he always gives it his best. Still in impeccable physical shape, the veteran action star (whose third entry in The Expendables franchise arrives in August) brings his best left hook to every scene, moving, shaking, and lightly joking with his costars. He and De Niro build a realistic rivalry with real hatred brewing behind their eyes instead of just shouting and relying on the premise to do the work for them.
More surprising is De Niro, an actor with undoubtedly more respect than his co-star, but who’s also known for coasting on his cred. Not here. The two-time Oscar winner is alive throughout the nearly two-hour run-time of Grudge Match. I don’t know if it was the physical demands of the role or the comedic elements that bring out the near best of De Niro. Perhaps his roles in David O. Russell films over the past few years have given him a second wind. No matter what it was, I’m glad it worked.
If it hadn’t, we would have seen much, much more of Kevin Hart. Now, there’s nothing wrong with more of America’s new favorite funnyman, but his scenes in Grudge Match are borderline extraneous already. Searching for that coveted four quadrant audience and wisely suspecting two AARP level actors wouldn’t draw in the young portion of families, Warner Bros upped Hart’s role, playing it up in the trailers and half-assedly fleshing out a back story for his character.
For once, I’m glad they did. Hart is the ideal foil for De Niro and Stallone, with brash exuberance overwhelming their initially lackadaisical attitudes. The comedian who recently rocketed to the financial A-list earns what was certainly a decent paycheck here, and makes his extra screentime worth watching with his quick wit/line readings. Later, he’s given a few key scenes with Alan Arkin, and the real or acted dismissal of each other’s value is incredibly fun to watch, even in limited doses.
Hart was so appreciated by the filmmakers — for what they hoped would make them more money — they included two special features on him. One is basically a big thank you to Hart and the other showcases alternate jokes and takes. They’re not better than what’s on film, but a welcome addition for fans. Same goes for the alternate opening, closing, and deleted scenes. They’re worth looking at — especially the endings which include the other two possible outcomes of the climactic fight — but they’re not stunning.
The real gem is the 14-minute making of which takes us behind the scenes for De Niro and Stallone’s training sessions, the choreography of the final bout (that Sly did himself), and much more. Every actor shows up as a talking head, as do a few members of the crew.
What Grudge Match comes down to is you, the viewer. If you go in with preconceived animosity for the premise or stars, you’ll find a way to laugh off the movie instead of laughing at it. The rest of us will embrace the efforts of these aging greats, and appreciate Rocky’s creed one more time: it ain’t over ’til it’s over.