“Grudge Match” can’t possibly live up to its billing, which essentially pits "Raging Bull" pugilist Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) against “Rocky” namesake Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), finally settling the bets of cinematic boxing fans everywhere. The film’s narrative echoes the problem its stars face: can two former champions remind of us why we rooted for them in the first place? Let’s just say that it goes better for the fictional versions of De Niro and Stallone than it does for the actors themselves. They’re in top form, but “Grudge Match” isn’t the right vehicle for them to get back on top.
The story itself is fine, if predictable. Stallone stars as Henry “Razor” Sharp, with De Niro playing his archrival Billy “The Kid” McDonnen. The battles between them begin in Pittsburgh in 1982, with each of them representing the other’s only career loss in the ring. Before they can do a rematch to decide who’s the better fighter, Sharp gets out of the game and retires. He leads a quiet life 30 years later, struggling to make ends meet in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Kid runs a car dealership and a bar, surviving on his short celebrity. To make some extra money, they each agree to do solo motion-capture fighting for a new boxing video game, but when they run into each other, they reopen old wounds and create a viral video sensation called “Two Old Guys Fighting”—throwing punches while wearing goofy-looking interactive suits.
The son of their old promoter, Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), sees opportunity and dollar signs, and he manages to bring the boxers together for a rematch. Each is out of shape, but there are more complications. Kid’s son, BJ (Jon Bernthal) shows up and becomes his coach, while his mother—and Razor’s former love—Sally (Kim Basinger) wants nothing to do with the ex-fighter. Razor reteams with his own old trainer Lightning (Alan Arkin), as they try to reclaim old glory. It all builds up to "Grudgement Day," where the two will fight in front of thousands at an arena and millions on HBO.
Though Stallone and De Niro give some of their best performances of this century, they’re not the top draw here. Audiences might have debated Arkin’s Oscar win for “Little Miss Sunshine,” but he’s even able to elevate the mediocre script here. Whether Hart’s lines are improvised or part of the script, he brings an infectious energy that makes many of his jokes feel spontaneous. While Bernthal never stood out on “The Walking Dead” amidst the zombies, he’s solid here, holding his own with his veteran co-stars. He’s incredibly well-cast, both in terms of his looks (we buy that he’s De Niro’s Kid’s son) as well as his acting.
However, even a cast this engaging can’t elevate the film above cable viewing. We can only hope the CGI in the early scenes that shows the two ‘80s-era boxers in title matches looks better on the small screen. It made us want to take back anything mean we’ve said about “Tron: Legacy,” which looks impeccable compared to the effects here. The editing from William Kerr (“Bridesmaids”) won’t win any prizes either; when Razor speeds out of the driveway of his rundown house in a gorgeous vintage Shelby, one wonders where it came from. Anthony Anderson isn’t a megastar, but his brief, random appearance early in the film is too thankless to be even a cameo. Similarly, LL Cool J steps away from his all-CBS-all-the-time job for a few scenes that leave him somewhere between co-star and cameo. Director Peter Segal (“Get Smart,” "The Longest Yard”) has never been a master of style, but at least his films have never looked this cash-strapped in the past.
While it’s not very ambitious, “Grudge Match” is ultimately successful at what it aims to accomplish. It’s not trying to be either “Raging Bull” or “Rocky;” instead, it’s a fitfully funny comedy starring aging actors that audiences want to succeed, even if the material (and the behind-the-scenes talent) isn’t up to the challenge. We appreciate that it’s angling for an older audience, while covering its bases with younger talent. We laughed, probably more than we’ll admit in film snob company. There are some solid jokes, mostly from Arkin (and most of those from a scene where he thrusts his hips with abandon) and Hart. But while it’s an occasionally funny film with good performances from its stars, it’s poorly and cheaply made. The laughs often come in spite of the script from Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman, which reaches a low point with two back-to-back scenes with homophobic jokes. We probably would have enjoyed the film more if we’d played a drinking game with shots taken at every reference to “Raging Bull” and “Rocky.” We would have passed out by the third act, but that might have also been an improvement on the experience. [C]