Don’t bet on Grudge Match
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There’s a definite air of irony emanating from the vaguely hopeful team behind Grudge Match. Audiences and industry trades haven’t been paying attention to the careers of Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro as of the late, the two actors now hanging onto the skid marks of careers that were at one point both powerhouse, but have since reached the ignominious point where diverting one’s attention is least embarrassing for everyone involved. The case for ageism in Hollywood can be made in Grudge Match—and it is—but there are plenty of older actors and film makers working successfully today. Meryl Streep raises the profile of any romantic comedy she agrees to be in and Morgan Freeman’s voice alone can set a film’s box office alight. But that’s because they’ve moved on from the roles that characterized their fame when they were younger—as for Stallone and De Niro, it’s been thirty-plus years since Rocky and Raging Bull respectively, yet they’re still trying to bank off the same type of films.
Grudge Match introduces us to Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnavan (De Niro) through a television documentary highlighting the infamous rivalry between the two wrestlers, one that ended anticlimactically when Sharp mysteriously withdrew from what was to be their final fight. Thirty years later, Sharp leads a quiet working class life, employed at a factory to supplement the wages of his wrestling days. He cuts coupons and doesn’t have a television but at least he doesn’t harbor the resentment that McDonnavan still does, who while rich off endorsements still holds a grudge towards his formal rival. The two are offered the opportunity to make some money filming motion capture fight scenes for a video game, but the theoretically civil encounter culminates into fight that goes viral when the video is posted online. Because interest is so high, they are given the opportunity to participate in final grudge match—although between an illegitimate son, an affair with an ex-girlfriend, and osteoporosis, they may not even make it to the ring.
Grudge Match’s greatest error is a simple one—it has no passion. It doesn’t take a lover of boxing films to tell when film makers have lost a love for their craft, or never really had it. Perhaps Stallone and De Niro aren’t even to blame here, as Peter Segal’s (50 First Dates, Anger Management) sloppy execution comes off as one huge eye-roll to the genre. If there’s one thing I appreciated about films like Rocky and Raging Bull is is the affection that were behind them—Rocky as a love letter to Philadelphia and Bull a more serious meditation on self-destruction and family. But Match is little more than a constant stream of testicle jokes, the insult made even greater by the irresistible reminder of the classics that came before it. It’s self-referential enough, but its obligatory commentary on modern technology is nothing new. The transition between acts is lazily constructed and obvious, the dialogue equally unapologetic. All of the expected elements are present but make themselves known without any degree of sophistication; we have the precocious child straight out of The Champ, the training montage out of Rocky, and a pretty one-dimensional treatment of its minority and femalecharacters.
It would be unfair to treat the film as a complete insult; it has its moment of comedy, well-timed gags about Life Alert and an old Bangkok flame of Sharp’s aging manager ( Alan Arkin) the highlights. It could’ve been more skillfully self-referential but a scene where Stallone’s character purchases meat a la Rocky should please his fans.
Has the audience these actors appealed greatly to three decades ago now been rendered a niche genre? If fans of classic boxing films can find a satisfying movie-going experience in doses of crudely-delivered nostalgia, then there might be hope yet for films like Grudge Match.