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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I saw three Sylvester Stallone movies in theaters in 2013. I’m not sure that will ever happen again. Not, of course, because I’m unwilling. I’d go see a new Stallone film once a month if I could. It’s just that Bullet to the Head, Escape Plan, and now Grudge Match have all been huge domestic failures at the box office. Despite the Razzie attention I’m sure he’ll receive, none of that has been on Stallone, who was quite good in all three efforts. While some action icons are content to simply sleepwalk through roles, Stallone has consistently given his full attention to his latter day film projects, and I find it unfortunate that he hasn’t been met with much success.
Grudge Match is the story of two long retired boxers, Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro), who come back to the ring out of shape and out of sorts for one final rematch. McDonnen got the best of Razor in their first fight, and then Razor took down The Kid in the first rematch, but then promptly retired. The years since were unkind to Razor, as he worked in the receding American manufacturing industry. Kid went on to own a successful bar and restaurant and car dealership, but his hacky one-man show at the restaurant is clearly demeaning. The first 20 to 30 minutes of Grudge Match is fairly rote and also fairly forgettable. But it gets better from here.
Neither men found much success in their personal lives either, with Stallone never really finding anyone he loved as much as his ex-girlfriend Sally (Kim Basinger, who is fairly awful in her supporting role) and De Niro never spending any time at all acknowledging his grown son B.J. (Jon Bernthal, in a somewhat thankless role). When aspiring boxing promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart) offers each man $100,000 for the rubber match, they begin to find themselves again. It is at this point when the film when Stallone and De Niro really begin to shine. A video of the boxers wrecking up a motion-capture studio goes viral, and the people of Pittsburgh begin to believe in the match as well. The film comes together at this point.
De Niro and Stallone really seem to take their rivalry in good fun. This much is captured from their performances, with especially De Niro becoming active and lively. Stallone takes his performance seriously – he has always excelled at playing these types of blue collar characters – but he lightens up especially when on screen with Alan Arkin, who plays his aging trainer Lightning, as well as with De Niro. The bulk of the story is about why the two men gave up their careers and what their feud meant to each other, and in this dramatic aspect Stallone really gives a nuanced and layered performance. It’s another good dramatic role for Stallone for which I’m sure he’ll receive no credit.
The film suffers, however, from poor comedic direction and a weak script. Director Peter Segal, who has helmed films like Tommy Boy, 50 First Dates, and Get Smart, doesn’t seem entirely into the material and some of his direction just comes off as lazy. I’m not sure if it was a director-for-hire effort from Segal or what, but for his first film in five years I would have expected more energy from his end. The script also suffers in areas. There is a precocious eight year old kid I could have especially done without. The intent was certainly to soften De Niro’s character, but the kid just comes off as annoying. The budding relationship between De Niro and son B.J. could have been used to the same effort. There is also the obvious “the fight’s off” moment, which is fairly quickly reversed. The actual fight itself seems choreographed just fine, but again suffers from lackluster direction.
Overall, Grudge Match is a fine comedy film. It isn’t overly complicated and doesn’t overstay its welcome at all. Stallone and De Niro are good in the lead roles and I really appreciated their chemistry. Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart are funny in their scenes as well, and each brings a distinct comedic styling to the film. While De Niro may have been in it for a quick paycheck, he at least doesn’t sleepwalk through the role. Stallone brings a more layered performance to the film that will assuredly be overlooked and derided by critics simply because its popular to pile on Stallone. Though the direction is a bit lackluster and the script is unpolished, I still had a good time watching the film. We might not get three Stallone films theatrically released in the same year ever again, but I’ll continue to seek out whatever work he does.