Film Review: Grudge Match

Movie boxing icons Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone return to the ring for an audience-friendly comedy.

There have been some legendary boxing matchups over the decades, but what could be greater than the showdown of two of the movies’ most celebrated fighters, the fictional Rocky Balboa and the reel-life Jake LaMotta? The curiosity factor alone should lead crowds to Grudge Match, the holiday comedy offering the one-two combo of Sylvester Stallone (age 67) and Robert De Niro (age 70), two film icons returning to the ring as new pugilist characters.

The stars’ long-ago movie vehicles couldn’t be more different: Rocky, the populist crowd-pleaser that won the Best Picture Oscar over Network and De Niro’s own iconic Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, the black-and-white but predominately dark character study ranked as one of Martin Scorsese’s masterworks. In the interim, De Niro’s become known for his comedy chops in films like the Fockers series, while Stallone has sustained a career as an action star. Interestingly, in Grudge Match it’s Stallone who is assigned the dramatic heavy-lifting while De Niro lets loose as the more colorful of the pair.

Stallone and De Niro play, respectively, Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, two Pittsburgh boxers with a long and complicated history. In their prime, each claimed a victory against the other, but just before their highly anticipated third bout Razor mysteriously left the fight game. Today, Razor works at a steel mill and barely gets by, while The Kid owns a used-car dealership and a bar (where he often does a standup act like LaMotta’s) and earns some extra bucks as a local TV pitchman. Then, Dante Slate, Jr. (comedian Kevin Hart), the son of their late promoter, comes up with idea of staging that long-delayed rematch. This minor local event becomes a national phenomenon when the two bitter rivals explode at a press conference and a video of the melee goes viral.

As often happens, there’s a woman at the center of their feud: Sally (Kim Basinger), who, feeling neglected by her lover Razor, cheated with The Kid. Jon Bernthal (“The Walking Dead”) plays BJ, the result of that distant affair, who eventually overcomes his resentment to become his dad’s trainer.

Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman’s script contains one too many hokey crises and is hardly a tale for the ages. But the interplay of De Niro and Stallone is tough to resist, especially with Stallone turning in perhaps the most subtle and self-effacing performance of his career, a nice counterpoint to De Niro’s showboating. And though the two actors show their age, they clearly worked hard to get into reasonable shape and prove they still have the stamina for a prolonged pummeling in the ring. Hart brings his familiar manic energy to the role of the wildly ambitious but cash-poor Dante, and Alan Arkin pretty much steals the movie as Razor’s aged but feisty, wise-cracking trainer, Louis “Lightning” Conlon.

Unlike its antecedents, Grudge Match won’t collect any prizes, but nostalgic holiday audiences will likely reward it at the box office.