Stallone and De Niro are ill-served by this clumsy boxing dramedy
Starring: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Jon Bernthal, Camden Gray
Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, profanity and sports-related violence
“Grudge Match” has the smell of a breathless high-concept pitch, and you can hear the exclamation marks: “Stallone and De Niro! As former rival boxers! Talked into one last bout!”
At which point scripters Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman tried to cobble up a narrative to suit this premise. With bewildering results.
The completed film feels like it wants to be a broad comedy, which would suit the sensibilities of director Peter Segal, whose résumé includes exaggerated farces such as “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,” “Anger Management” and the ill-advised big-screen adaptation of “Get Smart.” But despite the occasional comedy trappings, Kelleher and Rothman keep flailing away at sincerity and schmaltz: real-world emotion that Segal couldn’t deliver if he hired FedEx.
The finished product is an uneven mess. Every time we start to ease into one of the story’s heartfelt exchanges, we’re yanked out of the moment by a clumsy, grating scene that seems to belong to an entirely different movie. At which point the gentler pathos, no matter how well delivered, feels contrived. And a cheat.
Sylvester Stallone does the lion’s share of the heavy sentimental lifting, and he deserves credit for an impressive job. His character has heart, and we genuinely feel for the guy; he’s trying to play out the hand he dealt himself, with grace and dignity. Stallone knows precisely how to maximize his morose, mopey expression, and — surprise! — he quickly gets us in his corner.
Robert De Niro, on the other hand, is inflated to the extreme: a farcical, foaming-at-the-mouth caricature of a human being. De Niro overplays to the last row of the second balcony, and Segal apparently lacked the wit (or courage) to suggest that his star might tone it down a few dozen notches. The result, then, is that De Niro tramps through every scene like a rhinoceros in cleats, flattening any semblance of authentic emotion.
Which is ironic, since De Niro’s character is given a lot of the baggage expected from contrived, feel-good “dramedies” of this sort: A grown son he never knew! An adorable grandson he can’t relate to! It’s all clumsy sitcom fodder, and no surprise there, since Kelleher and Rothman cut their teeth as writers for Arsenio Hall and David Letterman’s late-night chat shows, and later worked on TV comedies such as “Two and a Half Men” and “Undeclared.”
Point being, these are not guys who understand the finer elements of dramatic restraint. Or even gentle comedy.
Decades ago, Pittsburgh boxers Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) were the talk of the town: battling rivals who each scored a victory against the other during their heyday. But then, in 1983, on the eve of what would have been a decisive third match, Razor announced his retirement, walked away from the ring and never looked back.
Which left Billy in an apoplectic fury, since he was sure he’d have won that third fight.
Flash-forward to the present day, which finds these two aging warriors in decidedly different worlds. Billy did well in business and runs his own restaurant/bar, where he entertains patrons with creaky stand-up routines, and beds a never-ending stream of adoring young cuties.
Only in the movies.
Razor, on the other hand, toils doggedly at a blue-collar job and does his best to help care for his cantankerous former trainer, Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Alan Arkin, phoning in another crusty ol’ coot role). Not even Louis knows why Razor gave up the “sweet science” all those years ago, and he still ain’t talking about it.
And, needless to say, Razor and Billy have worked hard to evade each other, despite living in the same city.
Hands-length avoidance becomes difficult when fast-talking promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart, trying to be Chris Rock) lines up a modest payday for a one-off gig, lending their punching, ducking and weaving skills as motion-controlled avatars for a boxing video game. Despite Dante’s best effort to prevent a conflict, Razor and Billy wind up in the studio at the same time; the result is equipment-smashing carnage … and the film’s first serious misstep.
How are we to interpret this scene, which reduces an entire tech studio to rubble? As slapstick farce, without consequence, to be thereafter ignored? Or as a real-world lawsuit involving hundreds of thousands of dollars? Segal can’t seem to make up his mind.
The script ducks the financial issue, thanks to a smartphone recording of the melee, which goes viral and prompts A Well-Heeled Backer to offer big bucks for a real, long-awaited dust-up between Billy and Razor. (With so much potential cash on the table, recent sins get forgiven automatically.) Billy’s all for it, of course, but the still brooding Razor isn’t interested.
Until he gets laid off at work, just as Louis gets booted from yet another assisted-living facility, because of his obstreperous behavior. And so, with a heavy heart but seeing no alternative, Razor signs on.
The resulting high-profile attention draws some figures from the past: Sally Rose (Kim Basinger), once the love of Razor’s life, and B.J. (Jon Bernthal), the now-grown son who resulted from Sally’s long-ago one-night-stand with Billy … and, a-ha! — That’s why Razor sulked into the sunset.
B.J., in turn, is the doting and devoted father of young Trey (Camden Gray), a precocious little guy who brings considerable charm to these proceedings. Oddly, B.J. appears to be the world’s first man to bring a child to term within his own body, since no mention ever is made of Trey having had a mother: a quite glaring detail that nobody in this story thinks to question. (You’d think Billy would at least ask, right?)
Stallone and Basinger are sweet together, as Razor and Sally struggle to move beyond past mistakes. Basinger brings some genuine class to this project; like Stallone, she works hard to portray a “real” character, as opposed to the live-action cartoons we get from De Niro and Arkin.
The awkward storyline tries to turn Billy into a real man as well, during exchanges with Bernthal’s B.J., but their on-again/off-again dynamic just gets tiresome. Then, too, Kelleher and Rothman poison the narrative well by leaving young Trey in Billy’s care for an evening: a jaw-dropping sequence that attempts to milk humor from placing the kid amid some barflies, and builds to a slapstick climax that feels — surprise, surprise — like a “laugh riot incident” recycled from “Two and a Half Men.”
I’d say the film never recovers from that miscalculation — just as “Crazy Heart” couldn’t sell single mom Maggie Gyllenhaal’s similarly stupid decision — but, in truth, by this point “Grudge Match” already is on life-support. And Billy’s subsequent act of vandalism, when he throws rocks and shatters Razor’s living room windows, doesn’t help matters.
This is supposed to be amusing? Or, alternatively, we’re supposed to excuse such behavior on the basis of Billy’s long-festering frustration?
Only in your dreams, folks.
Hart’s Dante Slate gets plenty of well-deserved chuckles with his verbal zingers, and — in fairness — the script takes some amusing pokes at both actors’ former boxing personas. My favorite bit comes when Louis walks Razor through a meat locker, and Stallone eyes a slab of beef and contemplates taking a shot at it. That’s a smile.
But these isolated moments, along with the good will Stallone and Basinger struggle to maintain, aren’t enough to save this maladroit muddle. As an added insult, the film runs a butt-numbing 113 minutes, which is at least half an hour too long for something this insubstantial.
It’s hard to regard “Grudge Match” as anything but a lump of coal in our Christmas stocking.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com