Grudge Match is a sort of Punchy Old Men, a slow-footed high-concept comedy that pairs up the screen’s greatest pugilists, circa 1981, for a few slaps and a few laughs.
Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone square off as aged boxers brought back by desperation and a desperate fight promoter, played by Kevin Hart. Hart slows his roll to match his two leads and the sluggish film around them, where every punch, every gag and most performances is played at half speed.
Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) were light heavyweights who had unfinished business in the ’80s. Razor walked away from a decisive third fight after each had taken out the other once in their rivalry.
Kid, a boozing braggart, never forgave Razor. He drinks and does a Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) sort of stand-up act in his bar, where he gets to live the ex-jock’s dream in their hometown of Pittsburgh.
Razor went broke, went to work in a steel mill and never got over the woman who came between them (Kim Basinger).
Then the son (Hart) of the promoter who ripped them off back in the day cons them into doing some video game motion capture work, reviving their rivalry for a few bucks. That could lead to “Kardashian sex-tape money” if he can get the two 60-somethings — who hate each other — back in the ring.
Grudge borrows a few plot points from Stallone’s Rocky Balboa back in 2006, with a viral video of the guys mixing it up at the video game recording studio putting them back in the news.
Alan Arkin is the foul-mouthed old man Razor wants to train him. Kid can’t convince anybody that the fight is anything but a joke, so his newly discovered adult son (Jon Bernthal) takes that gig for him.
Let the countdown to “Grudgement Day” begin.
There’s a comforting “we’re not dead yet” message to this, especially in the inevitable training sequences. Stallone, who has battled age with the sorts of treatments that turn your face into scrap iron, looks rough, even if he can still carry the bulk. But De Niro, who has been playing old men for 20 years, looks a decade younger, jumping rope, hitting the bag, doing pull-ups.
It’s a shame the banter isn’t sharper, that the whole thing wasn’t played at motor-mouthed Hart’s normal speed. His zingers lack the pop and the frequency that he delivers in most comedies. For many scenes, he’s interacting with a phone. He’s not even on the set with the stars.
Stallone was never the most graceful with a line, mumbling, struggling to get the funny to pop out. But he’s convincingly tough. And he makes the Rocky references work. Handed a glass full of raw eggs to knock down, he cracks “Fighters still do this? Looks like a lotta cholesterol.”
De Niro isn’t given enough funny stuff to do or say. “I’ve had my shots. A shot ’a Jim Beam. A shot ’a Johnny Walker …”
Arkin could do his aged, deaf trainer in his sleep — “Don’t use sarcasm on me. I’m an old man. I confuse easy.”
A few one-liners, a feeble touch of romance with Basinger (three Oscar winners are in this cast), a smart-mouthed kid — as formulas go, this one feels gassed.
It’s all very much in the style of director Peter (Get Smart) Segal — slow, sentimental, slick and sadly recycled. But it’s perfectly passable holiday entertainment for people who dated during the Rocky and Raging Bull era. Just don’t expect this Grudge Match to be much of a challenge.