Sylvester Stallone at 67 can almost get away with playing a has-been boxer returning in his dotage for one last, big fight. He has stayed in pretty good shape, and in “Grudge Match,” his character is a factory worker and no couch potato. The guy doesn’t even own a TV, and he still carries himself with that Rocky muscularity.
Time has been less kind to the former “Raging Bull,” Robert De Niro, now 70. De Niro made his career by acting, not flexing, and it shows. He has the body of a man who has enjoyed life outside the gym, and the face of one who has seen a lot. Aging mobster? Sure. Aging pro boxer? That must have been a long time ago.
Putting aside plausibility, the idea of a movie pairing the stars who played iconic characters in two celebrated boxing movies – one film won Best Picture, the other one should have – has intriguing possibilities, as either a comedy or a drama. “Grudge Match” is a little of both, and not enough of either to be satisfying. At a recent screening, the audience responded most when one character reminded the other he had lost “200 grand betting the Buffalo Bills.” “It was a sure thing – who loses four Super Bowls?!” is the response.
The premise has Stallone and De Niro as old-time boxing stars Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, who 30 years ago had a rivalry to equal Ali and Frazier. They fought each other twice, each winning one bout, before Razor (Stallone) abruptly retired, denying Kid the chance for a tie-breaking match.
Forces conspire to reunite the men and reignite interest in their long-standing feud, with the son of their old promoter stepping up to get them back in the ring. Comic Kevin Hart as promoter Dante Slate Jr. is the one spark of energy in a story that otherwise lurches along like a boxer with bad knees.
Director Peter Segal, known for low-concept comedies like remakes of “Get Smart” and “The Longest Yard,” peppers the proceedings with vulgarities and conventional twists while letting the talents of Alan Arkin as Razor’s scooter-riding trainer, a wraithlike Kim Basinger (now 60) as the love interest and even LL Cool J as a gym owner go nearly untapped.
A few things do stand out: Arkin and Hart’s antagonistic interaction eventually gains traction, and “The Walking Dead’s” Jon Bernthal does it right as Kid’s long-lost son. Even De Niro reminds us what a great actor he can be when Kid, seeing his last chance for fame and redemption slipping away, angrily begs Razor to get back in the game.
But the clips from “Raging Bull” and “Rocky” do more to remind us what we’re missing than whet the audience’s appetite for the brutal bout that ends the movie. And watching men on Medicare smash one another in the head until they’re blind from the bleeding borders on the grotesque.
“Raging Bull” and “Rocky” gave audiences stories full of heart and pain. One is considered a masterpiece, the other was a blockbuster, and both showed, in different ways, why movies are not television. They married sweep and intimacy, and took you along with them.
“Grudge Match” is a novelty act, resurrecting a couple of Old Masters so they can bare their chests and snarl while the world watches and mocks them on its mobiles. More than once along the way, you wish they would listen to those in the movie who tell them it is time to move on.
But ... if you do see “Grudge Match,” stay for the post-ending scene when Dante the promoter is trying to set up his next rematch. It’s a moment.
Two stars (Out of four)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger
Director: Peter Segal
Running time: 113 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sports action violence, sexual content and language.
The lowdown: Two aging boxing champs are talked into a tie-breaking rematch 30 years after their heyday.