Grudge Match is being pitched as a watershed event: De Niro vs. Stallone in the cinematic boxing match of the century. And indeed, there is a certain meta-power to this pairing, since we think back to the glory days of Rocky Balboa and Jake La Motta. Then we come to our senses, remind ourselves those were just legendary characters, and then this enterprise becomes a little bit sad. It’s a reminder that, during those aforementioned glory days, films like Rocky and Raging Bull were examples of the greatness these actors could reach for. Now, Grudge Match is the latest example of the crap these actors seem content to settle with.
But what I downer I am. This is a comedy! It’s fun, right? These two old legends getting together, whipping themselves back into shape and duking it out in a nod to their former prowess is cool enough to save the day, isn’t it? Hang on, though – isn’t this the same schtick Sylvester Stallone has been playing for the past several years? Rocky Balboa was about the old, worn-down Rocky coming back from the ashes. Rambo was about the resurrection of the legendary war veteran. The Expendables gathered together a cadre of old, conservative white action heroes to bring all of their careers back from the dead. Then there was a sequel to that movie, with a third in production. Just a couple months ago, Escape Plan was about old guys digging deep to break out of prison. Really, this film is just the latest episode of Stallone’s Old Guy Diaries, this time featuring special guest star Robert De Niro, who in recent years has participated in more movies like this one than the other, Raging Bull-type of film (ya know, masterpieces).
If Grudge Match deserves more attention than most of Stallone’s other recent vehicles, it’s because there is a bit of dirty-boy fun squeezed in at every opportunity. That fun is delivered compliments of Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, whose antics are prominent in the movie’s trailers because those antics result in the most entertaining parts of the film. Arkin and Hart, as De Niro’s grumpy old man trainer and the loud-mouth fight promoter, respectively, are essentially playing the same characters they play in every other movie, but their energy is high enough that it doesn’t feel stale. Plus, anything that provides momentary distraction from this screenplay — which is an unnecessary boondoggle of old-man-chases-past-glory clichés and some really uncomfortable interpersonal drama involving cheating spouses, illegitimate children, and alcoholism — is a godsend. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer to watch Arkin and Hart take cheap shots at one another.
Stallone is actually good here, effectively affable and beaten down. De Niro yucks it up in a role he could play in his sleep. And despite the material, there’s a certain weight to seeing these two guys on screen together. But, wait… are they on screen together? There are several sequences that seem to belie that notion. Grudge Match features some of the most transparently layered green screen work I’ve ever seen, since the two headlining stars appear in many scenes together while not actually occupying the same physical space. Such a scenario seems apt for a movie like this, a long-gestating battle between legends where those legends are often only meeting via the magic of movie technology.