The unstated, but obvious, conceit of Grudge Match is to pit the two great movie boxers of the early eighties — Rocky Balboa and Jake La Motta — against each other. “The aging palooka versus the aging psychotic” is not actually a terrible idea for a comedy, but somewhere along the way, somebody decided to make this a movie about urban despair and senior regret. The result is maybe more interesting than we might have expected, but it’s not particularly funny.
Needless to say, this isn’t really Rocky versus Raging Bull. Sylvester Stallone is Henry “Razor” Sharp and Robert De Niro is Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, two Pittsburgh fighters renowned for their bitter rivalry. It’s been 30 years, however, since they’ve had a chance at each other. In the intervening years, Razor has gone back to work at the local steel mill, and the Kid has become a restaurateur and car salesman. But now, the hard-on-his-luck son of their former boxing promoter, played by a typically motor-mouthed Kevin Hart, has a great idea: bring the two oldsters back into the ring and reap the profits. If you think about it, his scheme is pretty much what the film itself is doing.
As expected, there are a lot of old-age jokes here. Like, a lot of old-age jokes. As if having Stallone and De Niro delivering them weren’t enough, the movie also offers up Alan Arkin doing his usual (and very, very tired) Profane Grandpa thing as Razor’s aging trainer. As for the leads, Stallone does more with his part than De Niro does. He’s well-suited for this aging loser role, and he also seems more willing to rib his image, too. (I wonder if he’s upping his game because he knows he’s going up against De Niro, not realizing that this is the De Niro who does bland comedies and not quite the guy who played La Motta and Travis Bickle.) There are gags here around Razor doing Rocky-like things like pulling heavy machinery, beating sides of beef, and drinking raw eggs. You’ve probably seen some of these in the trailer. Well, have no fear: There are lots more of them in the movie, too.
De Niro is less willing to go there — probably because Raging Bull is a far more sacred cinematic cow than Rocky ever was, and we’re already angry at him for not making more Scorsese movies. But still, if you squint, you can see in his paunchy car salesman and bar owner a watered-down version of the nightclub impresario La Motta became in his doughy, punch-drunk later years. It’s probably blasphemy to say this, but I wish they’d done more with this, maybe brought Joe Pesci back or had some weird fun at the self-destructive La Motta’s expense. It can be done; Brando once winningly riffed on his The Godfather role in the Matthew Broderick comedy The Freshman, and his good humor was infectious. Anyway, if that’s the joke, you might as well have some fun with it.
But Grudge Match is anything but fun. In fact, it’s deliberately grungy, with lots of time spent wallowing in the blighted industrial landscape of Pittsburgh. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. There’s something mildly compelling about the sad-sack quality of the characters and their down-and-out town. Director Peter Segal is a journeyman who cut his teeth doing TV comedy specials, then made a couple of comedy sequels and some not-terrible Adam Sandler movies (50 First Dates, The Longest Yard, etc.). For all the anonymity of his filmography, he actually brings some personality and atmosphere to the movie.
To what end, though? Amid the urban bleakness and the old-age jokes, Grudge Match suffers from a distinct lack of energy. By the time the climactic bout arrives, we feel more worried than energized. That’s partly the point, of course, and the fight is, indeed, a pretty brutal one. But there’s still a real tonal incongruity here, between zany high concept and soft-touch execution. Mixing comedy and drama is one thing, but Grudge Match is not quite serious enough to make us care, and not lively enough to make us laugh.