Sylvester Stallone has built an entire late-stage career out of nostalgia, from periodically dredging up Rocky and Rambo for random sequels to a decades-too-late team-up with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Escape Plan” to crafting the entire “Expendables” franchise around the gag of “I used to be an action star.”
Robert De Niro, meanwhile, has chipped away at his reputation as one of this generation’s finest screen actors with films that spoof his on-screen image (“Analyze This,” “The Family”) and ones that are just outright embarrassing (“Red Lights,” “Righteous Kill,” and a list that goes on and on down to “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”).
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that these two would meet up in a boxing movie that would capitalize on the clash between an over-the-hill Rocky Balboa and an AARP-ready Jake LaMotta (the real-life boxer De Niro won an Oscar for portraying in “Raging Bull”).
Such a pairing isn’t the worst idea for a screen comedy, but the execution of “Grudge Match” turns out to be so utterly dismal that the movie feels like the final insult on what’s left of both actors’ reputations.
The premise is pretty much what you’d expect: In the early 1980s, the boxing world was captivated by the rivalry between two Pittsburgh-based light-heavyweights: Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (De Niro). Both fighters were undefeated except for the one match each lost to the other; before they could have a tie-breaker, however, Razor left the fight game and went back to his factory job.
Razor got screwed out of his money by fight promoter Dante Slate (Anthony Bean), but The Kid managed to parlay his winnings and his local fame into owning a bar and an auto dealership. His financial success, however, hasn’t kept him from stewing over Razor’s refusal to fight him again to determine who was the better boxer.
Cut to the present day, when Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart) approaches Razor about doing motion-capture for a video game company that wants to put out a Razor vs. The Kid simulation. At first, Razor’s not interested, but when the plant closes and his old manager Louis (Alan Arkin) needs to be moved into a pricier nursing home, Razor takes the gig.
The Kid shows up at the recording session, and when a fight between the two retired boxers (both wearing those green tights with the ping pong balls glued on them) goes viral, public demand leads them to agree to their long-delayed grudge match. Dredging up the past means the return of Sally (Kim Basinger) and her son B.J. (Jon Bernthal), both of whom have a complicated history with Razor and The Kid.
So you’ve got a game cast and a story that pretty much writes itself (and that plays into the public perception of its actors) — why, then, is “Grudge Match” so utterly stultifying until it picks up some steam with the big climactic fight sequence? Director Peter Segal (“Get Smart,” “50 First Dates”) and scribes Tim Kelleher (“First Kid”) and Rodney Rothman (a former head writer for “Late Night With David Letterman“) can’t seem to craft believable situations or witty dialogue to save their lives.
Even worse, they fall back on a lazy mix of homophobia, transphobia (per IMDB, there’s actually a credited character listed as “Tranny Hooker”) and misogyny. When we’re introduced to Arkin’s character while he complains about getting sponge baths from a male nurse, I could feel Burgess Meredith sighing with relief from the afterlife, grateful to have been spared this rotten screenplay.
Even with the, you’ll pardon the expression, dramatic heavyweights in the lead roles, it’s Bernthal (also currently appearing in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) who comes off as the movie’s most natural and compelling performer. De Niro mugs, Stallone mumbles, Basinger struggles to make facial expressions and even the usually reliable Arkin and Hart are saddled with jokes that aren’t remotely funny.
Go watch “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” again. Because, as they say at closed-casket funerals, it’s better to remember them as they were.