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MOVIE REVIEW: GRUDGE MATCH (2013)
By Michael Arruda
Okay, so I knew going in that GRUDGE MATCH, the new comedy featuring Sylvester Stallone vs. Robert De Niro in the boxing ring, wasn’t going to be ROCKY (1976) vs. RAGING BULL (1980), but the good news is it’s not STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT (1992) vs. LITTLE FOCKERS (2010) either.
It plays more along the lines of GRUMPY OLD MEN (1993) Meets ROCKY.
In all honesty, as much as I enjoy both Stallone and De Niro, I dreaded seeing this one because I feared it would be awful. It wasn’t. It’s actually a pretty decent comedy, mostly because everyone involved takes its story of two has-been fighters who get one last shot at each other in the ring seriously.
Thirty years ago, boxing champs Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) split a pair of championship bouts, with each athlete winning one match. Just before their scheduled rubber match, “Razor” abruptly retired from boxing, and the anticipated grudge match never happened.
It’s now thirty years later, in the present day, and Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), the son of their deceased promoter, is trying to drum up interest in a long delayed grudge match between the two. Dante is nearly broke and desperate, which is why he is looking for anything to generate some income. Billy is definitely interested, but Razor hates Billy and wants no part of it.
But Razor is also hurting for income and is about to lose his job due to layoffs, and so he agrees to appear in a video game featuring his likeness, under the condition that he doesn’t have to spend any time with Billy. Of course, Billy shows up at the studio at the same time as Razor, and the two men go at each other, nearly destroying the studio. Their melee is filmed by one of the staff there, and it goes viral on the internet. Suddenly there’s an interest in the real deal, and the money becomes so good that no one involved can say no.
Razor trains with his former trainer Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Alan Arkin) who’s pretty much confined to a motorized wheel chair, while Billy trains with his estranged son B.J. (Jon Bernthal) who only recently learned the identity of his father.
B.J.’s mother Sally (Kim Basinger) is Razor’s former girlfriend and the reason why he left boxing all those years ago. When Sally hurt him by pursuing Billy, Razor decided he’d take away the one thing that Billy wanted most, a rematch.
But nothing’s going to stop the fight this time around, and the story builds quite nicely to an unexpectedly riveting climax in the boxing ring.
GRUDGE MATCH isn’t going to win any awards for Best Screenplay, but the script by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman is funny. Most of the jokes here work, and although the theme of the movie is that you’re never too old to take your best shot, the good news is that the humor doesn’t always come at the expense of the senior citizens in this one. Sure, there are “old” jokes, but most of the comedy stems from Stallone’s hatred of De Niro, and De Niro’s misguided attempts at reconciling with his estranged son and young grandson.
There are a lot of other fine moments as well. The scene, for example, where Stallone and De Niro are confronted by a mixed martial arts fighter is a keeper.
Sure, Stallone is playing a variation of his Rocky character, but he’s so good at this sort of thing, it’s difficult to complain. And even for a man in his 60s, he still looks like he would be formidable in the boxing ring.
You need to suspend more disbelief in De Niro’s case, since he’s not built like a tank like Stallone, but De Niro more than makes up for this with a sharp comedic performance that is as biting as some of the jabs thrown in the ring.
Kim Basinger is still beautiful, even at 60, and she’s very good here. Alan Arkin is hilarious in yet another role where he gets to be a wise cracking old man, and Kevin Hart has his share of comedic moments as Dante Slate, Jr. But my favorite performance in this one probably belonged to Jon Bernthal as De Niro’s son B.J.
Bernthal, from TV’s THE WALKING DEAD and MOB CITY is in two movies opening this weekend, as he’s also in Martin Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. He plays two completely different types of characters in these films, and he nails them both. Here, as De Niro’s son B.J., he’s a decent hard working guy raising his young son, and he’s doing his best to reconcile with his estranged father, who doesn’t make it easy for him. It’s a very sincere performance by Bernthal.
Director Peter Segal does a nice job at the helm. Clocking in at 113 minutes, GRUDGE MATCH is rather long for a comedy, but the pacing is brisk, and this one doesn’t drag at all. In fact, it actually gains momentum as it builds to the climactic bout between Stallone and De Niro, which believe it or not is actually pretty exciting.
Boxing matches have been done to death in the movies, but there’s enough freshness here to make the climactic match stand on its own. First, there’s the novelty of seeing characters played by Stallone and De Niro face each other in the boxing ring. It’s impossible not to think of Rocky Balboa vs. Jake La Motta. I was really curious as to which character would win this bout. And then there’s the dynamic between the two characters in this film, and the way it plays out is very satisfying.
I enjoyed De Niro here better than in his previous film, THE FAMILY (2013), although he’s not as memorable as he was in last year’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012). De Niro has been busy this year, appearing in three other movies in 2013: THE BIG WEDDING, KILLING SEASON, and LAST VEGAS.
Stallone has been just as busy. I actually enjoyed GRUDGE MATCH a bit more than his previous effort, when he teamed up with Arnold Schwarzenegger in ESCAPE PLAN (2013). However, I liked Stallone’s BULLET TO THE HEAD (2012) and THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012) better than this movie.
I feared that Stallone and De Niro would make fools of themselves in this film, but they don’t. Surprisingly, GRUDGE MATCH was a very watchable comedy that kept the goofiness to a minimum, and by doing so, allowed its actors to generate some laughs by simply doing what they do best, creating characters who you can believe in and root for.
The bottom line is that GRUDGE MATCH delivers when it comes to producing laughs. I laughed quite a bit during the movie and found it hard not to like a film that featured Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro in the leads.
Helped by a solid supporting cast, Stallone and De Niro both come out on top, making GRUDGE MATCH a surprising winner.
I give it three knives.