There’s a weird soullessness to taking nostalgia-driven properties and repackaging them as cheap, easily consumed products. Take Grudge Match, a movie ostensibly about two retired boxers who left the ring on shaky ground with each other brought back for a cash-in on what’s left of their feud, but actually stars Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro.
Rocky and Raging Bull. It’s Rocky and Raging Bull people. Alien vs. Predator but with old guys.
The movie has this self-aware cynicism throughout, like the people who made it understood it was a cheap cash-in from the start. Sylvester Stallone plays Henry “Razor” Sharp, a boxer who grew up on the east side of nowhere Pittsburgh to become a boxing star, only to squander the wealth he attained and fall right back into the nowhere he came from. Robert De Niro is Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, Sharp’s in-the-ring rival who retired from boxing to open up a car dealership and a restaurant where he occasionally does bad entertaining. If this movie nods any harder it’s going to get whiplash. Also Kevin Hart is there to play the son of not boxing promoter Don King to rouse these guys out of retirement when a video of them reigniting their old rivalry on the motion capture set of a boxing video-game goes viral.
So it goes, that the movie takes you along through a slog of Adam Sandler-esque faux-ironic product placement, likely put in because someone on the production side of this knew that this wasn’t going to sell to a generation that doesn’t know what Raging Bull is. Seriously, if I put Jake La Motta up there next to Rocky, not many people would know who I was talking about. The best moments by far are when Kevin Hart drifts along the screen because that’s the only time when you actually feel like there’s any energy on the screen. For a movie that’s about two guys training to fight each other, two people who have resented each other for decades, that the only time any of the anger they’re supposed to have towards each other is played for laughs makes one wonder what exactly the film is building towards. Especially since they’ve supposedly only had a few weeks to train, decades after their original fights, and Sylvester Stallone is still built coming off The Expendables while De Niro looks exactly like he should. That said, there’s some interesting chemistry between them, for the scenes where they aren’t shamelessly self-promoting (both for the match and the movie itself).
You can find some good stuff in the nooks and crannies. As a spiritual successor to La Motta, it’s interesting to see De Niro play a boxer that tries to get in touch with the family he didn’t play a part in. Later in the film, there’s an interesting development with Stallone’s Sharp, but true to form, the movie plays things too safe for it to really matter. Kim Basinger plays Lucy, the ex-girlfriend of Sharp who has to deal with being the mother of McDonnen’s kid. Every so often, Alan Arkin shows up to be even more cantankerous than everyone else. It’s nice to see Jon Bernthal in a role that doesn’t involve zombies and a farm.
All in all, if you really care about a “who would win” match between old Rocky and old Jake La Motta, this movie would be right up your alley. There’s nothing terribly offensive about the film (save for one really uncomfortable prison rape joke), but there are definitely better ways to spend your time. Like watching Rocky or Raging Bull. Seriously, watch them if you haven’t they’re both amazing films. Drastically different in terms of tone and message, but great films. They’re just different enough, that this movie effectively mashing them together as a comedy feels more awkward than anything else. If you didn’t realize it was ever in theaters, you’re not gonna fret about missing it on television.
Grudge Match Premieres Saturday, December 6th at 8pm on HBO!