It’s Rocky Balboa vs. Raging Bull, a third of a century after anyone cares. But Grudge Match, a light-hearted, easygoing affair that coasts along on the charisma of its stars, is better than you might expect, even though it builds up to a final fight that can’t possibly deliver the goods.
Sylvester Stallone stars as Henry “Razor” Sharp, and Robert de Niro is Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, two former boxers who memorably battled each other to a 1-1 tie in two fights, each delivering the only loss on the other’s record. A third fight was set to happen, but Razor suddenly called it off, leaving the world to wonder who the true champion was.
Thirty years later, Razor is working in a factory and The Kid owns a used car lot. Interest in the fighters remains, and both agree to a performance capture that would digitize them for a video game. But when the duo – put in the same room for the first time in thirty years – get into an actual fight on the set, a video of the brawl goes viral.
This sparks dollar signs in the eyes of fight promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), who gets the pair to agree to an actual match – Razor, because he needs the money, and The Kid, because he wants to prove he’s the true champ. While the press initially balks at the idea of putting these senior citizens in the ring, they eventually prove their worth.
Grudge Match doesn’t exactly explore any new thematic ground, and the storyline is hopelessly predictable, but it has a kind of relaxed charm that almost becomes infectious. A lot of that comes down to the two stars; while de Niro is doing his familiar late-career comedic shtick, Stallone is surprisingly empathetic as Razor. But after six Rocky films, he’s right at home in the role.
A terrific supporting cast helps to keep things lively. Kim Basinger stars as Sally, Razor’s old flame who comes back into the picture after seeing him on the news; Alan Arkin is Louis Conlon, Razor’s old manager who returns to train him; and Joe Bernthal (The Walking Dead) plays The Kid’s now-adult, long-estranged son. Serving mostly as comedy relief, Hart livens things up whenever he’s onscreen.
But the big problem here is tone, which wavers uncomfortably between comedy and drama and never really delivers on either front. The film was directed by Peter Segal, a comedy veteran who made Get Smart, 50 First Dates, and Anger Management, but the script plays things straight – only Hart’s loudmouth promoter brings the funny. The film is also never serious enough to work as a drama, and some of the more heartfelt scenes tend to fall flat.
Set in Pittsburgh but shot mostly in New Orleans, Grudge Match has a cheap, rough-hewn look to it that brings a late-70s/early-80s vibe; it may be purely accidental, but it suits the material well.
Despite its flaws, I was going with Grudge Match for most of the ride, right up until the big climactic fight. I’m not what exactly I expected from the two aging stars, but one thing I expected from the script was a good, clean fight that would firmly establish a true champ – but the finale left me wanting.
Be sure to stick around through the end credits for a number of additional scenes, which are funnier than anything in the film itself.