It’s never pleasant to watch a person you once respected lose touch with the skill or talent that made them so great, and that’s what we’ve been witnessing with Robert De Niro and, to a lesser extent (in that our respect for him was considerably less), Sylvester Stallone. As Robert De Niro has been lending his presence to lousy family comedies (Meet the Fockers, Little Fockers, etc.) or failed attempts at reclaiming his once gritty persona (Righteous Kill) with only a few good projects scattered in between, Stallone has been doing the same with revisits to his boxing (Rocky Balboa), soldier (Rambo), and action star (The Expendables, Bullet to the Head) glory days. And so, with their collective dignities besmirched by their refusal to let go of their glory days, they’ve given in to a film like Grudge Match, a film whose very premise plays out like the answer to an internet argument about which actor’s boxer character would win in a fight: Rocky Balboa or Jake La Motta. Spoiler alert: both actors lose by even entertaining the question.
Of course, it’s not actually Rocky vs. La Motta, but that’s exactly what the writers were going for with the casting of Stallone and De Niro as the two rival boxers who decide to indulge in a match 30 years after their last bout. To give it some semblance of emotional stakes, an unexpected handicap, the revelation of a son (Jon Bernthal) born out of a one-night stand with the other man’s girl (Kim Basinger), and wise-cracking side characters (Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin) are thrown in. Even though the fight is inevitable (based on the saccharine writing of the script and, well, the Blu-ray cover), the plot still wastes time playing the “will they, won’t they” card as Stallone’s Henry Sharp debates whether or not he actually wants or needs the money it promises to earn him. Meanwhile, in a bit of heavy-handed storytelling, De Niro’s character, nicknamed “The Kid”, has to decide if he’s ready to grow out of his immature womanizing and drinking ways to be a father and grandfather to his newly discovered son and his son (which feels very reminiscent of Rocky Balboa).
Even the ending, which we won’t spoil, is a bit too sentimental and easy. You came to see these two legends finally decide which is better after 30 years? Too bad, because a feel-good ending where the egos of both actors and the fans of either (or both) are kept intact. It’s the kind of “bigger lesson” cop-out that we’ve gotten far too many times before, and, since the road to get to that point this time wasn’t really worthwhile, it just feels trite and deeply unsatisfying. Everyone wins! Except the audience which had to sit through two hours of sappy sentimentality to get to a place it’s been before far too many times.
Both actors can do better at this stage in their careers, and both have. Movies like these stand as monuments to the egos of actors who convince themselves that they’ve still got what it takes to do one kind of movie or another instead of growing old gracefully and recognizing their limitations. De Niro has been excelling in supporting roles over the last few years, and whenever he picks a movie that puts him back in a leading role, he seems to choose poorly (with very few exceptions). The same is true for Stallone. The Expendables started as a novelty item, a tribute to a bygone era of action movies, and now they keep going even as the first sequel was a disappointing mess. It’s fun to pay homage to the career you used to have, but when you keep trying to forcibly resuscitate that career, like both Stallone and De Niro did in Grudge Match, it just gets really depressing.
It’s not an impossible thing to do; it’s just that the desire to do so (or the paycheck) seems to override their critical thinking when they read the scripts that would let them accomplish it. How else can you explain a movie like Grudge Match that’s just awful on every level?
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The combo set includes the film on Blu-ray, DVD, and as an Ultraviolet digital copy. In terms of extras, we get two Kevin Hart-centric featurettes, interviews with three boxing legends, and alternate endings and openings. Honestly, the interviews with Tyson, Holyfield, and Holmes have more value than the film itself, just watch those instead.
"Grudge Match" is on sale April 8, 2014 and is rated PG13. Comedy, Drama. Directed by Peter Segal. Written by Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman. Starring Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone.