Could Mr. T beat Mr. Clean? Could Flipper beat Jaws? If you’ve ever wondered about the fighting talents of real and fictitious pop celebrities, the vintage website Grudge-Match.com (1995-2005), which combined speculative analysis and Internet votes, was a time-waster’s haven, but it was incomplete. Though the site offered Rocky vs. Rambo, for some reason the more logical Rocky vs. Jake LaMotta missed the cut. Now, we have a movie called Grudge Match to fill that yawning gap.
Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone are two former boxers, now in their 60s, who want to reschedule a match that was cancelled 30 years before. For film buffs, there’s a brief montage to savour: vintage clips of a young Stallone and De Niro practising boxing for their parts in Rocky and Raging Bull, which underscore the parallels between Stallone’s blue-collar fairy tale in the first of those movies and De Niro’s ring opera in the second.
A seniors’ comedy that riffs on the two actors’ most famous roles, it’s more like Grumpy Old Men with Spit Buckets. Picking up from the late scenes of Raging Bull, we see De Niro as Billy (The Kid) McDonnen, onstage from his Pittsburgh bar, insulting women and telling old boxing stories. His old rival, played by Stallone, is Henry (Razor) Sharp – their Italian-American names have been dropped – who needs money to help pay the medical bills of his old manager (Alan Arkin, caustically snappy, as per usual).
When a motor-mouthed promoter (Kevin Hart) wants them to do some motion-capture posing for a video game, the rivals meet again, shove each other around and, thanks to a viral video, become celebrities again. Soon, a rematch is in the works.
There’s a woman, of course. Kim Basinger, Razor’s old flame, who hurt him many years ago, emerges from the past to fire Razor’s sense of romance and ambition. Though Basinger (a mere 60) looks great, it’s an awkward performance: Too often she’s left waiting for Stallone to slur out his next line.
At times, the script seems uncertain whether this is a family film or an R-rated comedy. Billy discovers an estranged adult son (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal) named B.J., which provides the opportunity for a numbing number of off-colour jokes, including some involving a child. As the more animated of the two aging warriors, De Niro waves his hands and shouts a lot, and occasionally shoots invective worthy of Raging Bull’s Jake.
Everyone in the movie, of course, is anxious to see these comeback seniors beat each other up, except, perhaps, the viewing audience. While Stallone (67) and De Niro (70) have done a commendable job keeping their waistlines in check, the vision of the two actors shuffling about the ring in an awkwardly choreographed slapfest is not inspiring. Courageous, no doubt, but really not inspiring.