The Good: Funny, Decent acting
The Bad: Predictable plot
The Basics: Grudge Match is a parody of boxing films that focuses a compelling amount on the nature of aging and redemption enough to be smarter than the average parody film.
I’m not sure what it is about the holiday season that makes major studios believe they have the right time to release a boxing movie. In the case of The Fighter, it was ostensibly a release time designed to get the movie award nominations. In the case of Grudge Match, I suspect Warner Brothers is releasing the film to give comedy viewers something other than Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues to go out to theaters for on Christmas day. It’s certainly not for the vicarious thrill of watching other people punch one another while one is frustrated with their family over the holidays; Grudge Match is not a serious boxing film, it is a comedy that pokes fun at the sports movie genre and it utilizes two of the genre’s most recognizable actors to do so.
Somehow I’ve managed never to catch Raging Bull, which was one of the earliest films in which Robert De Niro distinguished himself as a great actor. Sylvester Stallone, of course, made his name in the iconic role he wrote and played in Rocky (reviewed here!). So, in Grudge Match, Stallone is recognizably poking fun at his last few outings as Rocky Balboa and Robert De Niro . . . De Niro has been performing in comedies quite a lot lately, so it’s somewhat unsurprising how he plays the role of Billy McDonnen.
Back in their prime, boxers Razor and The Kid fought two matches. In one, Henry Sharp (“Razor”) won and in the other, Billy (“The Kid”) won. Sharp retired before the pair could establish definitively who was the superior boxer. Thirty years later, Henry is approached by Dante Slate Jr. to provide footage for a new video game. While providing a movement template, Sharp is interrupted by McDonnen and the two throw around angry remarks until a fistfight breaks out. When the video of the fight goes viral online, Slate is inspired to approach the pair with a proposition: the two will fight a grudge match to determine who is the true champion.
Both Sharp and McDonnen are grossly out of shape, so to meet their obligation to the fans they begin training. Sharp turns to the even older former boxer, Louis Conlon, while McDonnen’s trainer has become morbidly obese. McDonnen’s attempt to get in shape gets a boost when he learns he has an illegitimate son, B.J., who he encourages to train with him. Trying to put his life in order, Sharp uses the training to try to work through his feelings for Sally when she pops back up in his life. Sharp still carries anger over an affair Sally had back in the day with McDonnen and he is hesitant to let her be around him as he figures out his life. Motivated more by money, Sharp becomes desperate to win the match while McDonnen is eager to impress his new son and achieve a sense of notoriety that his ego craves.
Grudge Match succeeds, when it does, because it is funny and it has a thematic resonance that is bigger than the comedy. The film, while rich in laughs with almost all of the supporting characters, is smart enough to give the main characters enough dramatic meat to play with. Stallone’s Sharp is moody and bears the weight of consequence for his past decisions and linger anger; De Niro’s McDonnen has an arrogance to him that is shaken by how much his body has changed (which he discovers when he starts seriously training) and by the appearance of his new son. More than being a simple sports movie or a comedy (which never plays for the ridiculous), Grudge Match is the story of two men who have unresolved issues outside the boxing ring that, in the process of coming back into the spotlight, they find themselves plagued by.
That might make the script from Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman smarter than the average sports movie, but Grudge Match is still painfully predictable. Dante’s cajoling the aged athletes into the fight itself is set-up in an obvious way and the nature of the romantic mess between Sharp, Sally, and McDonnen seems somewhat contrived.
That said, the acting in Grudge Match is actually impressive. While Stallone growls his way through most of his lines in a way that is instantly familiar to anyone who has seen him in the Rocky movies or . . . well, pretty much anything else he has been in. But Stallone’s mumbling plays well to the character of Razor Sharp and while there are several gags in Grudge Match that mock the iconic moments of Rocky, Stallone never seems out of place or like his off-camera persona. Instead, Sharp is distinctive and presented with a realistic sense of internal conflict that Stallone is able to handle.
Robert De Niro is predictably great as The Kid, though he plays the role with his usual straightfaced sense of comic deliveries that his fans have become accustomed to in recent years. Similarly, Alan Arkin’s delivery of non-sequitors and off-putting lines and Kevin Hart’s exuberant acting plays more to each of the men’s strengths as opposed to revealing anything truly new to the audience. Jon Berenthal gives more emotional range as B.J. than he was allowed to on The Walking Dead (his big season was season two, which is reviewed here!). Berenthal holds his own opposite De Niro and he plays his character’s sense of abandonment well.
Grudge Match might not be going for an Oscar, but it reminds viewers how a satire of an entire genre can work well by aiming for smart. The caliber of the cast and the thematic resonance plays well as entertainment that is not going for giant spectacle this season, though it seems pretty forgettable when it is done. Grudge Match will not be the next Anchorman.
For other works with Kim Basinger, please check out my reviews of:
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© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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