“Grudge Match” is a sort of “Punchy Old Men”, a slow-footed high-concept comedy that pairs up the screen’s greatest pugilists, circa 1981, for a few slaps and a few laughs.
DeNiro and Stallone square off as aged boxers brought back by desperation and a desperate fight promoter, played by Kevin Hart. Hart slows his roll to match his two leads, and the whole movie, with every punch, every gag and most performances passing by at half speed.
“Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and “Kid” McDonnen (DeNiro) were light heavyweights who had unfinished business in the ’80s. Razor walked away from a decisive third fight after each had taken out the other once in their rivalry.
Kid, a boozing braggart, never forgave Razor. He drinks and does a Jake LaMotta sort of stage act in his bar, runs a used car dealership and lives the ex-jock’s dream in their hometown of Pittsburgh.
Razor went broke, went to work in a steel mill and never got over the woman who came between them — played by Kim Basinger.
Then the son of the promoter who ripped them off, back in the day (Hart) cons them into doing some video game motion capture work, reviving their rivalry for a few bucks. That could lead to “Kardashian SEX tape money” if he can get the two 60somethings back in the ring.
It borrows a few plot points from Stallone’s “Rocky Balboa” back in 2006, with a viral video of the guys mixing it up at the video game recording studio putting them back in the news.
Alan Arkin is the foul-mouthed old man Razor wants to train him. Kid can’t convince anybody that the fight is anything but a joke, so his newly-discovered adult son (Jon Bernthal) takes the gig.
Let the countdown to “Grudgement Day” begin.
There’s a comforting “We’re not dead yet” message to this, especially in the inevitable training sequences. Stallone, who has battled age with the sorts of things that turn your face into wood, looks rough, even if he can still carry the bulk. But DeNiro, who has been playing old men for 20 years, looks a decade younger, jumping rope, hitting the bag, doing pull ups.
It’s a shame the banter isn’t sharper, that the whole thing wasn’t played at motor-mouthed Kevin Hart’s normal speed. His zingers lack the pop and the frequency that he delivers in most comedies. Most scenes, he’s interacting with a phone. He’s not even on the set with the stars.
Stallone was never the most graceful with a line, mumbling, struggling to get the funny to pop out. But he’s convincingly tough (slapping a certain Mixed Martial Arts poseur silly). And he makes the “Rocky” references work. Handed a glass full of raw eggs to drink, he cracks “Fighters still do this? Looks like a lotta cholesterol.”
DeNiro isn’t given enough funny stuff to do or say. “I’ve had my shots. A shotta Jim Beam. A shotta Johnny Walker.”
Arkin can do his aged, deaf trainer in his sleep — “Don’t use sarcasm on me. I’m an old man. I confuse easy.”
A funny line, a tired bit of business with Basinger (four Oscar winners are in this cast), a smart-mouthed kid, as formulas go, this one feels gassed.
It’s all very much in the style of Peter “My Fellow Americans/Get Smart” Segal — slow, sentimental, slick and sadly recycled. And it’s perfectly passable holiday entertainment for people who dated during the “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” era. Just don’t expect this “Grudge Match” to be much of a challenge.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sports action violence, sexual content and language
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Sylvester Stallone, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger
Credits: Directed by Peter Segal, written by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman. A Warner Bros. release.
Running time: 1:53