Old Rivals Hobbling Back into the Ring
There is a simple problem (really many) that ails Grudge Match and it is a rather large one.
The movie needs to get from point A to point B. Point A is the comically rapid opening few minutes of exposition which expedites the premise- two boxers have each won the light heavyweight title against each other, but one retired before they could complete the decisive third match. Point B of course is inevitably watching these two, now old men 30 years later, complete the eponymous third fight. Together, these two points total about 20 minutes long. That leaves about an hour and a half to fill in the meantime- 90 minutes of Sylvester Stallone speaking and Robert DeNiro working out, and both pretending to hate each other. A problem indeed.
DeNiro plays Billy “The Kid” McDonnen and Stallone is Henry “Razor” Sharp, but really this is Raging Bull versus Rocky Balboa. It would be silly to think otherwise, right? Occasionally, it seems it might be. Whether they are unconscious allusions or just subtle nudges, director Peter Segal, with writers Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman, are at least aware that these two men have history in the ring prior to this joint venture. McDonnen owns a car dealership and runs a small bar where he does tired standup with a puppet, a comical jab to his fattened, wide-nosed Jake LaMotta days. Stallone meanwhile rekindles a relationship with his old trainer played by a slightly deaf Alan Arkin, seemingly a stand-in for the late Burgess Meredith.
Instead of Philadelphia or New York, Grudge Match takes place in Pittsburgh, aiming for a blue-collar, working-class middle ground that Henry has settled into. Now falling in debt and scrapping metal in shipyards, he resigned from boxing, spurning rival Billy’s hopes for a decisive third match and killing their careers. “Why?” of course becomes this narrative’s long loaded question and the answer is eventually pried out by their fight promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), who inherited these geezers from his father. He promises them quick and needed money if they strap on some motion sensors and throw a few punches for a videogame. They show up to the studio at the same time and tempers quickly flare, real punches are thrown, and social media begins to storm. Dante sees the dollar signs in the viral video and books them an HBO final fight.
Henry offers persistent hesitation. In the boxers’ heydays, Billy slept with Henry’s girlfriend Sally (Kim Bassinger). She had a son and neither of them helped raise him. Thirty years later he’s become a strapping father and a strength and conditioning coach named B.J. (John Bernthal). Sally has also conveniently just separated from a longtime boyfriend and reignites interest in Henry. Billy, conscience-free, can’t wait to strap on the tape and gloves again to settle the score. The sizable cash purse ultimately convinces Henry to enter the ring one more time.
Once the foundation is laboriously laid, the clichés come in droves, as do the predictably calculated conversations. Henry reteams with Louie Conlon (Arkin) fresh out of the nursing home and Billy connects with B.J., his neglected biological son, to get him in shape. Segal cues the training montages, the first one demonstrating their weak sagging bodies, the last one demonstrating their generously toned sagging bodies. In between training sessions, Dante carousels them into publicity stunts, which always end in disaster, like a ludicrous rendition of the national anthem. “There’s no bad publicity,” says Dante, and it appears Kevin Hart believes his character. He provides some kinetic energy to this aging pair, but his physical shtick runs dry quickly. Kevin Hart continuously over-indulges his own “Kevin Hartness.”
The same could be said for Stallone, whose limited lexicon and slurred speech feels like a symptom of his steroid-infused torso. He refuses to age. It’s sad watching him go through the troped motions. This could have been a meditation on financially broken boxers struggling to survive or a candid romantic farce. It refuses to achieve either. The boxing movies Stallone and DeNiro once fueled had bigger things on their minds. Rocky became a vehicle for Cold War heroism, and Raging Bull pulled the curtain behind fighters with serious insecurities and anger. They meant something. Here, Conlon makes Henry train outside, push tires and pull trucks by rope. He doesn’t believe in newer forms of equipment or exercise. Here, Pilates stands in for the U.S.S.R.
Segal’s previous films (Tommy Boy, Anger Management, Fifty First Dates, Get Smart) have mostly paired disparate characters together, usually laced with some romantic trouble. They’ve mostly included Adam Sandler, too. It makes sense when you consider Grudge Match’s sloppy relationships and silly script. When we finally get to the match and HBO’s inspired cinematography, the movie has the chance to wink at itself. As Henry walks out to the ring, there’s a natural anticipation to hear Rocky’s theme “Gonna Fly Now.” Instead some generic ACDC blasts through the speakers. Sometimes bad movies can work, especially when everybody’s already in on the joke. Why isn’t Segal?
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