Grudge Match movie review – a forgettable fighter

Grudge Match can’t get out of the corner

Like a punch-drunk boxer, Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro’s latest, Grudge Match, stumbles unsure of which way to go. Is it a drama with comedic elements or a comedy with dramatic elements? There’s potential either direction, but the inconsistent tone prevents the film from being a knockout.

It’s been 30 years since the last clash between boxers Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen (De Niro, The Family) and Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp (Stallone, Escape Plan) and on the big anniversary, the boxing world looks back at an unfinished rivalry.

Some creative CGI wizardry is used for the archival footage of the rivals’ first two encounters where each gains a victory, but on the eve of the rubber match, Henry shockingly retires.

Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (Robert De Niro), Henry "Razor" Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart).

Now with interest rekindled in the feud, promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain) wants to get the two back in the ring to finally settle the score.

At 67 and 70 respectively, Stallone and De Niro, are decades removed from their physical prime, but they’re in commendable shape and they both have a firm command of their characters. Stallone gives Henry a more laid-back persona of a man comfortable with his post-boxing life while De Niro paints Billy as an emotional hothead who hasn’t been able to let go of the past despite a successful career outside the ring.

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Screenwriters Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman wisely don’t try to cram a lot of winking references to their stars’ previous iconic boxing films save the inclusion of Louis ‘Lightning’ Conlon (Alan Arkin, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) as a crankier version of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey from the Rocky series.

Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures Kim Basinger as Sally.

Their script is strongest not when the emphasis is on the premise of two over-the-hill fighters arguing like a married couple and Slate’s goofy promotional efforts (how exactly would boxers skydiving spike ticket sales?)  but when it focuses on Henry and Billy trying to overcome their physical limitations and restoring previously damaged relationships.

In Henry’s case, it’s his old girlfriend Sally (Kim Basinger) and for Billy, it’s his estranged son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal, Snitch). B.J.’s son, Trey (Camden Gray), proves an unwelcome addition to Billy’s subplot mainly due to Gray trying too hard to be “cute.”

Hart does his usual fast-talking, high-energy shtick to some occasional funny moments, but too often his scenes feel forced and irrelevant.

Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (Robert De Niro), Trey (Camden Gray) and BJ (Jon Bernthal)

It’s not for lack of effort on Hart’s part, but he’s just asked to be Kevin Hart (!) popping in and out with a random joke instead of being more of a contributor to the film. Arkin is used far more effectively as a vital character to the story and dependable comic relief. Hart’s best work is saved for two very funny post-credit scenes.

Director Peter Segal could have clipped 30-minutes to get the film to a more audience-friendly pace as two hours is a bit much for a sports comedy/drama.

Despite a background directing slapstick comedies including Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult and Nutty Professor, Segal has a stronger handle on the dramatic elements compared to the scenes played for laughs, which he lets go on for too long as if he’s holding out for a bigger payoff that never arrives.

Segal stages the boxing segments smartly with a focus more on impact of the blows and less on Stallone and De Niro’s ability to bounce around the ring like they’re in their 20s. Credit the script as there’s not an obvious fighter that should win over the other creating some actual suspense in a boxing movie as to who will be the victor.

Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (Robert De Niro) and Henry "Razor" Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) in "Grudge Match."

While it has its moments, Grudge Match is largely forgettable and with so many better options currently in theaters, this is strictly a preliminary bout that can easily be skipped for the main event.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures

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