I'll admit, there was something mildly appealing about the prospect of seeing Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta go head to head, even if it is just in doctored video images made to look like younger versions of Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro (as fictional fighters Bill "The Kid" McDonnen and Henry "Razor" Sharp) in the new film GRUDGE MATCH, from director Peter Segal (TOMMY GUN, GET SMART, ANGER MANAGEMENT). In the film, the pair were the best the fighting game had to offer back in the early 1980s, and when they finally battled each other, the had two bouts, with each taking one win a piece. Then just as the decisive third match was about to happen, Razor retired from boxing for unknown reasons, killing both of their careers in the process.
Jump ahead 30 years, with video games blowing up, boxing promotor Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) has a way for the pair to fight again via motion-capture suits, shot separately and put together in a game. Naturally, Razor wants to settle a score, so he shows up during The Kid's motion-capture session and they start to tussle, with some technician recording the whole thing on his phone. Shortly the clips goes viral, and now there's actual demand for a real fight in the ring between the two men, both of whom could use the big payday.
If that were all there was to GRUDGE MATCH, it might have made for a solid 90-minute comedy about two old guys training, with a pretty great boxing match to wrap things up. But for whatever reason, the filmmakers (including screenwriters Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman) didn't have enough confidence in that story alone to just roll with it. I really enjoyed watching The Kid pair up with his old trainer Louis "Lightning" Conlon (Alan Arkin, coming armed with a arsenal of wisecracks), while Razor asks his newly found son B.J. (Jon Bernthal, also seen tearing it up in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET this week) to help whip him back into shape. Sure, the rediscovered son angle is completely corny, but when they actually set their mind to training and talk less about how The Kid abandoned B.J., the film stays on target.
But the filmmakers can't leave well enough alone and clutter what is shaping up to be a decent sports movie into one about a 30-year-old love triangle, hurt feelings and other sentimental crap that drags it down like the heaviest anchor imaginable. Kim Basinger is on hand as Sally, a woman The Kid was in love with back in the day, who did something to hurt him bad and cause him to drop out of that famed third fight. And guess what? I don't care. Neither the big mystery about what caused him to exit the bout, nor the romantic outcome of The Kid in the present day is a real shocker, so why waste so much time on it?
There are some aspects of the final big fight that are absolutely ridiculous, bordering on unintentionally hilarious. But excluding those, a great deal of GRUDGE MATCH gets the job done, once the lead actors move past the obvious age jokes and other forms of childish squabbling and get to the business of beating the snot out of each other. It's a close call, and probably the reason I'd give the film a pass is because there were moments when you almost can't believe that they got Stallone and De Niro to do this movie in the first place, given their history in boxing movies. What isn't there in the script, these two pros inject into the film through better-than-expected performances and even a bit of energy. It's far from a great film, but sometimes you get a kick out of watching professionals do their work well. Much like the final fight, the film ain't pretty but it gets the job done.