Something faintly amusing exists in the onscreen collaboration of theatrical superstars Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro. There’s the unavoidable notion of Rocky Balboa duking it out with Jake La Motta – the former, fictional and kindhearted and upliftingly triumphant; the latter, factual and abusive and depressingly self-destructive. And there’s the matured, jesting action star aspect of Sly to match accomplished De Niro’s fun-loving, sarcastic approach to his roles of late. But “Grudge Match” makes the mistake of assuming these two legends can’t entertain on their own, and incorporates numerous, superfluous subplots to flesh out a story that could have been as simple as tossing them both in the ring together. Dripping with sentimentalism, forced domestic rubbish (a love triangle involving Kim Basinger and a reacquainting with disunified offspring) adds to the already obligatory nature of a loud-mouthed promoter and a curmudgeonly trainer.
In Pittsburgh in 1982, light heavyweight champions Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) strike up a boxing rivalry comparable to Ali and Frazier. The 15-round bout in which McDonnen took the title is considered one of the best of the decade. In 1984, famous sporting organizer Dante Slate sets a rematch that sees Razor best The Kid in yet another iconic fight. But a third engagement never takes place, as Sharp unexplainably retires. He goes back to work at Benson Ship Builders and loses his fortunes, while McDonnen runs a successful car dealership.
Approximately 30 years later, the impoverished Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart) desperately approaches both boxers to sell their likenesses to an Xbox video game developer. McDonnen is itching to confront his longtime opponent, but Sharp is reluctant to be in the same room. After worrying over his crotchety trainer’s (Alan Arkin) overdue nursing home bills, Henry finally agrees (for $15,000), but it results in a physical altercation – with the two pugilists trading tripods across torsos and computer monitors over heads. The footage is uploaded to the internet, where it goes viral – establishing that the best publicity is in failed promotional gimmicks. When Sharp loses his job, he’s finally convinced to just battle in a real ring, which proves to be an event that, with the need to sell 5000 tickets, compels the duelists to cooperate further for advertising.
McDonnen starts his training by downing a stack of maple syrup-drenched pancakes and a tumbler of scotch. Sharp sucks down a glass of raw eggs. Plenty of slapstick bedecks their comical but lengthy training sequences, always ready to poke fun at aging, techniques, and all things “Rocky.” Inescapable themes of the elderly versus technology (with iPad, YouTube, and camera phone nods), repairing damaged relationships, and irresponsibility attached to celebrity creep into the picture, racking up the minutes for purely fattening details. In the form of side stories and extra character development, it’s slow and hurtful to the pacing. Too much drama begins to detract from the anticipation of the contest, leaning more toward the life lessons of “Rocky V” than it’s better focused, livelier predecessors. Stallone and De Niro together becomes a novelty that wears off prematurely, succumbing to sappy emotional entanglements with supporting players – and their own exaggerated chumminess.
– The Massie Twins