With Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kim Basinger, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart. Written by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman. Directed by Peter Segal. Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, sexual content and language. 113 minutes.
It’s hard for young moviegoers to believe that Robert De Niro was once considered one of our finest actors. For more than a decade now, he’s been phoning it in, reminding us of Marlon Brando, the once-great actor who appeared in a lot of films mostly for the paycheck. While nothing De Niro has done of late compares to his finest work in films like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” he seems to have woken up from whatever slumber he’s been in. The movies may be second-rate, but he’s starting to be worth watching again.
This is the long way around to saying that the ludicrous GRUDGE MATCH turns out to much better than anyone might have expected. Even beyond the clichés and the stunt casting of De Niro with Sylvester Stallone––one of the oddest couples since Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn teamed up to make “The Iron Petticoat” in 1956––there are some real emotions worked into this story of two old-timers dealing with the weight of the past.
Stallone is Henry “Razor” Sharp. Thirty years ago he was a boxer in Pittsburgh with a rivalry with Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro). They split two bouts, and then Sharp walked away from what was supposed to be the decisive rematch. He’s never explained why, and has lived a modest life working at a local mill. With no wife and no family, his chief concern is Louis (Alan Arkin), his cantankerous old trainer whom he supports through a series of nursing homes.
Dante Slate, Jr. (a frantic Kevin Hart), the son of the crooked promoter who ripped off both fighters, convinces the two to appear in a video game. When the two meet at the studio, punches are thrown and there’s interest in getting the two back in the ring. For Sharp, it’s for the much-needed money. For McDonnen, it’s finally getting to prove he was the greater fighter. The arrival of Sally (Kim Basinger), a woman with a history with both men, further complicates things.
The theme of the movie––and the way both Stallone and De Niro play it for both comic and dramatic effect––is old men facing the consequences of the decisions, good and bad, that have made up their lives. It gives the film an unexpected resonance, as they have to face the question of whether it is too late to set things right. Stallone gives his best performance in years, subdued and from the heart. De Niro has the broader character, but instead of just going for the easy laughs he lets us see some of the bitterness and regret that’s driving McDonnen.
However let’s not get carried away. Even with the always welcome Arkin and a nice turn by Basinger, the very premise is ridiculous. Stallone is 67. DeNiro is 70. While they both appear in great shape––and this reviewer has no desire to cross either of them––the notion that even the most corrupt boxing officials would let these two old geezers in the ring is ridiculous. That they would survive the brutal pummeling depicted on screen is even more absurd.
So there’s a requirement that you be willing to not only suspend your disbelief, but that you ignore reality all together. Except for the notion that these two guys are going to get into fighting shape and engage in a professional boxing match, there’s a funny, touching film here. Unfortunately, since the movie is called “Grudge Match,” that notion is the driving force of the film. If you’re able to swallow that, the rest of it just might surprise you.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.