Mark Reviews Movies

Grudge Match


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Segal

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Jon Bernthal, Kim Basinger

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sports action violence, sexual content and language)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 12/25/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2013

In Grudge Match, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro play retired pugilists who were once—decades ago—fierce rivals and are now bitter about much more than their former career and the old rivalry. If the casting of the stars of two of the most iconic boxing films ever made (Rocky—and its sequels in terms of cultural impact and not quality—and Raging Bull) sounds like a cheap stunt, well, it kind of is at first. The prologue, which recounts the histories of the two fighters' careers, makes explicit and liberal use of footage from those two films and photographs of the actors from the era manipulated to fit the context of this story, and in a really clever bit of editing, the film pieces together some of the boxing scenes from those other films to give us their second fight. The first of their bouts, which looks from ringside in longer shots, is presented using what can only be really ingenious visual effects and doubles.

Aside from a few homages of various levels of subtlety (e.g., Stallone's character is about to punch a slab of meat in the back of a butcher's shop before his trainer stops him and De Niro's character has an illuminated mirror in his office), the film gets the cinematic nostalgia out of the way in first sequence in humorous and sort of impressive—for the amount of work that went into it—ways. Director Peter Segal doesn't wallow in or try to ride the coattails of the fame of those films; he and the screenplay (by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman) use them as a means of establishing a past glory—a glory that has all but completely faded in the subsequent decades.

Henry "Razor" Sharp (Stallone) lives alone in a rundown, single-story house under a bridge in Pittsburgh. He works in a mill that's started to lay off employees, including him.

Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro) owns a restaurant and a car dealership in the city. He's doing well for himself financially, but aside from acquaintances at work, he's alone, too.

Neither man has moved beyond the past. The opening sequence tells of how the two had a pair of popular fights in their golden days. McDonnen won the first; Sharp won the second. The night before the third fight, which would essentially decide which of them was the best in their weight class, Sharp retired from the sport, leaving a big, unanswered question for them both. Sharp had other personal concerns to stew over for 30 years, but McDonnen has spent that time resentful of his opponent's surprising decision.

With a documentary about their rivalry renewing interest in the two fighters, Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), the son of the dishonest boxing promoter who made Sharp and McDonnen famous, convinces the men to provide motion-capture work an upcoming video game. Sharp takes it because he needs the money to help pay for the bills for an assisted living facility for his old trainer Louis (Alan Arkin). McDonnen takes the job so that he can confront Sharp about his decision 30 years ago. That confrontation, in which the two men destroy the motion-capture studio, goes viral on the Internet, and Slate sees an opportunity to set up another rematch between Sharp and McDonnen.

At this point, the film could easily fall back on the obvious. Here are two men—out of shape (McDonnen has gained a gut over the years and gets out of breath from cheering the news of the upcoming bout, and Sharp can no longer haul a pickup truck without difficulty, which is only unfit relative to what he used to be) and without the professional advantages they once had (McDonnen is a laughingstock at the gym where he goes to train, and Sharp is stuck with training in a junkyard)—trying to reclaim some semblance of their youth.

It could be played for simple laughs (There are some here, watching the two men bicker as they get caught up in odd situations to promote the fight, like skydiving or getting into a war of words with a mixed martial artist about the validity of his sport) or inspiration. The screenplay instead gives the men foils who let us know there's more to this fight and the decades of loneliness and bitterness than just a missed professional opportunity. Ultimately, the film isn't about reclaiming the past but putting it to bed.

For Sharp, it's Sally (Kim Basinger), the only woman he's ever truly loved. After the announcement of the fight, she, now a widow, comes back into his life to try to explain the affair that drove apart the two 30 years ago, and Sharp has to determine if he can accept his own responsibility for the wedge between them. For McDonnen, it's B.J. (Jon Bernthal), the son he knew he had with Sally but whom he has never met. B.J. wants to know the kind of man his biological father is, and McDonnen must decide if he's the kind of man who could be something even resembling a father.

As these relationships progress, some of the situations that develop—two scenes involving reckless driving and the late revelation of an old injury that firmly establishes one of the men as an underdog—are contrived compared to the scenes in which these characters hash out their grievances, but by the time the big fight arrives, Grudge Match has given us good-enough reasons to be invested in it (The fact that the boxing match avoids the usual perils of modern sporting events in movies, like an overreliance on commentators for context and lazy television-aesthetic style, helps a lot, too). Actually, that sounds right: It's a good-enough film.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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