Kevin Hart tries to sell the idea of Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro doing a big fogie fight. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Grudge Match’ Director: Peter Segal Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
“Versus” movies are the biggest cons in the business. There was never going to be a victor in “King Kong vs. Godzilla” or “Freddy vs. Jason” — just an anticlimactic draw that takes our money and doesn’t deliver. Technically — technically! — “Grudge Match,” which pits one boxing movie legend (Robert De Niro) against another (Sylvester Stallone), lets one triumph over the other. That doesn’t mean it’s not a cheat, or not incredibly lazy. Okay, that’s not entirely true: It’s about 40% likably lazy to 60% actually lazy — a shambling dramedy that runs on its amusingly mismatched pair, to say nothing of the three other random people (Kim Basinger, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart) who have no business being in the same movie.
That all five get along anyway is part of the very modest charms of the film. Through a montage featuring creepy F/X that digitizes and messes with 30 year old film clips, we learn that Sly’s Billy “The Kid” and De Niro’s Henry “Razor” Sharp once had a rivalry that ended when the former abruptly quit before a decisive match. Henry, who sold out, has been nursing his bitterness ever since; Billy, like Rocky, lost his fortune, and works a dead-end factory job. Even then it takes some arm-twisting from an excitable promoter (Hart) to get Billy to agree to a super-belated, old-fashioned fogie fight.
The best thing about “Grudge Match” is the utter lack of lame old-timer jokes and — especially but especially — Viagra gags. The film could have been made 10, maybe even 20 years ago, with minimal changes to the script. It doesn’t belabor their age so much as their various regrets. Henry has a son (Jon Bernthal) he never met, while Billy finally contends with the idea that he wasted his life being angry, when he could have spent that time with an old flame (Basinger — surely Sly’s most out-of-his-league onscreen mate since Sharon Stone in “The Specialist”). Historically, when Stallone has played serious he’s done puppydog. Here, he drops the self-pity, closes himself off from others and has honestly rarely been better.
Of course, another way of looking at this serious stuff is that it’s a waste of our time. “Grudge Match” is funny enough that it should be funnier. And where its leads actually do train their hearts out — in montages that, regrettably, weren’t ghost-directed by Stallone, the reigning king of directing training montages — the screenplay gets lost in stock situations. It’s not a good sign when De Niro is the most alert — but then, he’s finally seemed to have woken up after years of sleepwalking through paychecks. This is a paycheck, too — a paycheck job about a paycheck job, in fact, though self-awareness hasn’t made the filmmakers step up their game.