I’m sure many producers have dreamed of pitching “It’s Rocky versus Raging Bull!” in meetings with Hollywood studios since the early 1980s, but as the decades slipped by that pitch has seemed less like an exciting proposition and more like a something depressing that we’re just going to have to get through together at some point. Sylvester Stallone’s penchant for trading on former glories and Robert De Niro’s willingness to settle for any half-baked script that comes his way meant that there was a certain inevitability – or should I say, inescapability? – about a film like Grudge Match tarnishing our memories of what these two men were in their prime.
Both actors are clearly playing variations on Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta rather than Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “Kid” McDonnen, the roles they are supposed to be inhabiting here. Stallone’s Razor is a sweet-natured blue-collar guy who just wants to keep his head down and do an honest day’s work, while De Niro’s Kid is an infamous womaniser whose lame cabaret act recalls the one performed by the washed-up LaMotta in Raging Bull. We are told that these two shared an intense rivalry three decades ago (images of which are created for us with some fuzzy CGI effects), but Razor walked away from the sport before they could have a third, defining bout, and the pair have kept their distance ever since, a bitter resentment simmering between them. They are brought together by an energetic low-rent promoter (Kevin Hart) who could easily be speaking for the producers of this film as he plots to unite these faded stars and trade on our nostalgia.
Beyond the initial casting hook, not a lot of thought appears to have been expended on the construction of Grudge Match, with Razor and Kid going through the motions of comical training montages and undignified publicity stunts, as you’d expect, and each having to deal with some personal issue as well as focusing on the fight. In Razor’s case, it’s a rekindled relationship with Sally (a distractingly drowsy Kim Basinger), the woman who came between him and Kid in the ‘80s, while Kid tries to come to terms with the fact that he has a son (a well-cast Jon Bernthal) and grandson in his life now. Each man faces a moment of crisis that threatens to derail everything just before the fight, and the film generally hits every beat that you would expect a film of this nature to land on.
Is this a problem? Not necessarily. It would be foolish to go into a Peter Segal-directed comedy sports movie anticipating surprises. The laziness inherent in its writing is disappointing, but the bigger issue here is that it simply isn’t funny enough to mitigate that laziness. The jokes are older than the two stars (“Gutsy move, going without a bra!” “It don't look like you're missing any meals!”) and there’s a whiff of desperation over the attempts to eke humour from Bernthal’s character being named BJ. Comic relief is ostensibly provided by Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, but both actors wear out their welcome almost as soon as they appear on screen. Arkin's performance as an old man who shouts inappropriate things is one that he has given before, with much more energy than he provides here, while Hart’s endless stream of shrieked pop culture references and “white people are crazy” gags makes him come across as nothing more than a pound shop version of Chris Tucker.
But of course, the only reason anyone is going to see Grudge Match is for the leading men. I won’t reveal the outcome of the climactic fight, but Stallone emerges as the victor in the acting stakes here. He is able to settle into this kind of broad, self-deprecating fare with more ease than De Niro, who always looks uncomfortable and often seems to be wishing he was somewhere else. “A great performer knows when to leave the stage” Kid is told at one point, and watching De Niro sleepwalk his way through films that are so far beneath him remains one of cinema’s most dispiriting spectacles. When I watch Robert De Niro these days, I can’t help thinking of the line Samuel L. Jacksondelivers to him in Jackie Brown: “What the fuck happened to you, man? Shit…your ass used to be beautiful.”