Friday, December 27, 2013

GRUDGE MATCH Doesn't Rage Or Rock, But It Does Put On a Good Show


- Thankfully, GRUDGE MATCH doesn't take itself too seriously. It's very much in on the joke that, here in 2013, Stallone vs. De Niro is not the dream match-up that it once was. What makes the movie work is that it's a breezy sports comedy about two way-past-their-prime ex-boxers who never had their tie-breaking fight, and have a score that's been left unsettled for thirty years. This is a light, fluffy, feel-good crowd-pleaser. It's not going to win any awards - it's a far cry from Raging Bull and a long way from Rocky - but this is a movie that's highly watchable and overall, lots of fun.

Stallone does not play Rocky Balboa, and De Niro does not play Jake LaMotta, but GRUDGE MATCH clearly plays off the iconography of the two actors' famous roles. In this movie, the two are former champions who had a bitter rivalry - De Niro won their first fight, while Stallone won their second - that never got a real resolution. For reasons that remained a mystery to the public, Stallone's character dropped out before the decisive third bout could take place. As we learn, there's more to the rivalry than simply the in-ring competition, and there were personal motivations that kept Stallone from having that third contest. As the years went on, Stallone loses most of his money and settles into a blue-collar life, working a factory job and taking up an art hobby. De Niro owns a car dealership and a bar, and while he's more financially successful, his life is more of a wreck. He's a drinker and a gambler, and has not aged gracefully. Decades after their last fight, however, the two cross paths once more thanks to a hustling promoter - played by Kevin Hart - trying to make a name for himself. Hart helps sign both boxers to a contract to have themselves motion-captured for an upcoming videogame. But when the two come into contact, old hatreds reignite, and the two get involved in a knock-down, drag-out brawl in the studio. The fight gets captured on cell phone cameras and becomes a YouTube sensation. Suddenly, there is interest from fight fans in seeing - finally - that fabled, never-happened third fight grudge match between the two rivals.

Stallone and De Niro are both in ham mode here, but ... there are glimpses of them - flashbacks, if you will - at their Oscar-worthy best. There's not the kind of intensity or high drama that you'd find in a Rocky film here, but look, these are two of the greatest movie stars of all time squaring off. There's still some juice left in both Stallone and De Niro, and both have enough charisma to sleepwalk through a scene and still make it interesting. Not that they're sleepwalking. Sure, Stallone is playing a more homogenized version of his usual brooding strong-and-silent persona, but it's a nice contrast to De Niro here, who has a certain, undeniably youthful spark in his eye and bounce in his step. De Niro is perhaps the true surprise here, because though he looks old and flabby in comparison to the still-jacked Stallone, he makes up for it by bringing some humor and heart to the table. Just as we see glimpses in his character of the champ he once was, so too do we see some glimpses in De Niro of the kind of powerhouse, Oscar-worthy fire that made him incendiary in films like Raging Bull.

Actually though, the true MVP of the film may be Alan Arkin, as Stallone's old trainer who's brought out of the nursing home and back into the fray to once again train his former student. The fact is that a lot of Arkin's lines - and a lot of the script in general - are cheesy and hamfisted. But Arkin sells them with such a sense of good-natured mischief and understated zing that they draw big laughs anyways. Like Stallone and De Niro, Arkin can do this sort of crotchety sourpuss role in his sleep - but the guy is simply the best in the biz, so he makes it work. The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal, meanwhile, is also quite good as De Niro's estranged son. There's an obvious physical resemblance, but beyond that, the two have a nice chemistry. Adding additional humor to the proceedings is Camden Gray as Bernthal's son (and De Niro's grandson) - a precocious eight year old who, quite amusingly, overhears a lot of child-inappropriate banter from his boozing, womanizing grandfather.

Less great is Kim Basinger as the woman who, long ago, came between Stallone and De Niro. It's always nice to see Basinger pop up, but she seems sort of out-of-it in this one, and her relationship with both leads feels a little half-hearted. I'm also of mixed minds about Kevin Hart here - Hart is occasionally legitimately funny, but a lot of times he seems to cover for lame dialogue by just yelling and gesticulating a lot. He definitely brings some needed energy to the film though, and he's got an especially fun chemistry with Arkin whenever the two get a chance to go at it.

Overall, I think the biggest knock against this film is that we've seen this story done much better and more dramatically, as recently as in Stallone's own ROCKY BALBOA. We've seen better training montages, we've seen better big speeches about needing one more shot, and we've seen better from both Stallone and De Niro. There is, overall, a sort of low-stakes feel to this movie that works alright, but that makes the big, climactic fight less epic drama and more amusing curiosity.

The script and dialogue, meanwhile, is cutesy and full of lines that are groaners. We get a lot of old-guy jokes about Stallone and De Niro not knowing from iPads, viral videos, or cell phone cameras. We also get some cringe-worthy, non-PC jokes that movies in 2013 just shouldn't have, and that feel out-of-place in what is, mostly, a more family-friendly film.

But mostly, GRUDGE MATCH is a fun, light, entertaining flick that, like its stars, has a bit of a retro feel. But while De Niro's heyday was the 70's, when maverick movies challenged audiences, and Stallone's was the 80's, when ultra-violent actionfests ruled cinemas, Grudge Match feels like a 90's throwback - the kind of ready-for-cable, goes-down-easy schmaltz that will find a long and oft-repeated shelf life on TNT or Spike TV. That means that, no, this movie isn't even in the same weight class as its stars' best films - but, it is the perfect sort of movie for a lazy Sunday afternoon. And really, what more does one need from Grudge Match?

My Grade: B

1 comment:


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