In the early 1980s, the rivalry between Billy “The Kid” McDonnen and Henry “Razor” Sharp was the biggest in boxing. They fought two fights, each winning once, but neither man could claim superiority because Razor surprisingly retired before their third fight. Thirty years later, the enemies finally get a chance to face off in the ring one last time.
That’s the plot of Grudge Match, a comedy starring Robert DeNiro and Sylvester Stallone, two actors with iconic portrayals of boxers on their filmographies. Razor lost his fortune soon after retiring and is working in a shipyard when he’s approached by promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), who offers him $15,000 to provide a motion capture performance for a boxing video game. Needing the money, Razor reluctantly accepts, but is surprised when The Kid (DeNiro) also shows up to film a performance. The Kid has spent the last three decades enraged at Razor’s retirement, and it isn’t long before the two men are throwing punches in the studio. After cell phone footage of their brawl becomes a viral sensation, Dante is inspired to organize a final match between Razor and The Kid known as “Grudgement Day.”
Razor also has a personal reason for hating his rival: The Kid had an affair with Sally Rose (Kim Basinger), Razor’s girlfriend. Sally shows up at the (badly attended) press conference announcing “Grudgement Day” and tries to make amends with Razor. The Kid finally meets BJ (Jon Bernthal), the child produced from his liaison with Sally, and ultimately hires him as a trainer. Meanwhile, Razor enlists the services of his former trainer, Lightning (Alan Arkin). Lightning’s training methods include having Razor lift weights underwater and stick his hands into what may or may not be a bucket of urine.
It’s no surprise that Grudge Match works in a few parodies of Stallone’s Rocky movies. After Lightning breaks several raw eggs into a glass, Razor comments, “Fighters still do this?” Later on, Razor looks ready to pound a slab of meat when Lightning asks him, “Do you have to hit everything?” There’s also a hint of Rocky when Razor tells Sally Rose, “I’m a fighter. I was born to be a fighter.” Stallone entering the ring at his age is actually somewhat believable thanks to his success in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. However, there are no jokes about DeNiro’s Oscar-winning role as Jake LaMotta in 1980’s Raging Bull. Perhaps director Peter Segal and screenwriters Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman felt such references would go over the head of the PG-13 audience.
Given his disastrous track record in comedic roles, Stallone wisely chooses to play the straight man here and displays the underappreciated acting talent he didn’t have much use for in last fall’s Escape Plan. He creates the more poignant fighter, and his final speech to his former love is somewhat touching. DeNiro has been criticized for putting his legendary acting talent at the service of lightweight comedies over the past 15 years, but when he’s good in comedy, as he is here, he’s very good. Basinger’s performance reminds us that in a fair world she’d be better known today for her acting ability than her battles with ex-husband Alec Baldwin. Arkin is a delight and has some of the movie’s best lines, while Hart firmly establishes himself as one of the funniest comics working today. He’ll get the chance to prove he can headline a movie when Ride Along opens later this month.
Grudge Match is not a great comedy like the original Meet the Parents or Segal’s earlier films Tommy Boy and Anger Management (easily the most underrated film of Adam Sandler’s career), but it has some good laughs. The sight of two senior citizens slugging it out in the ring could have been horrifying but is handled well, and the ending is surprisingly satisfying. Make sure not to leave when the credits start rolling, as one of the funniest scenes comes afterwards.