The perfect time for Grudge Match to be made and released would have been two or three decades ago, when Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro were at least closer to their respective physical prime and when it would have been at least somewhat believable and realistic to put the Raging Bull (De Niro) in the ring with the Italian Stallion (Stallone).
Or, failing that, things still might have turned out all right if they had made the movie even 10 years ago, before the two actors abused their bodies beyond repair and tarnished their reputations with a series of bad cinematic decisions (for Stallone, it was a string of action duds that did the dishonor; for De Niro, it was the less-funny-as-they-went, Fockers trilogy).
Also, neither of those versions of the movie would have featured Kevin Hart, a supposed “comic actor” whose noxious presence proves to be its biggest irritant. (In earlier incarnations, his role might have been played by either Eddie Murphy or Chris Tucker, who would have been preferable – and much funnier.)
However, singling out Hart for criticism here would be unfair. Not only is this sports comedy poorly timed, it has more than just a whiff of desperation, both on the part of its remaining cast and the filmmaker, Peter Segal, who hasn’t made a decent comedy in nearly a decade (and that’s only if you consider the flawed but sweet 50 First Dates as a success).
Stallone and De Niro star, respectively, as Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, longtime pugilistic rivals whose last bout ended in a hotly debated draw. Time has only made their storied rivalry more bitter, and a few attempts at staging a rematch have failed miserably.
Enter Dante Slate Jr. (Hart), an enterprising sports promoter who uses the long-retirer boxers’ large egos – and a helping smattering of exaggeration – to coax the two men out of retirement and get them to agree to a supposed “deciding” fight.
However, that’s the easy part. Now it’s up to Razor and The Kid to get themselves back into fighting shape. The former would appear to have the edge there. In his corner is smart-alecky, veteran trainer Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Alan Arkin, the film’s saving grace, if it can really be said to have one).
Segal is out of his comfort zone here. He clearly has no idea how to stage a big-screen boxing match, and, worse, he’s working with a script from two credited screenwriters (TV scribes Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman) who think that the idea of hilarity is Stallone spoofing moments from his Rocky films or De Niro serving as the butt of elderly bodily function humor and other off-color references that would have been rejected for inclusion in his recent Last Vegas fiasco.
And no matter how fit he is for his age, or how much working out he did for the part, De Niro just isn’t a convincing physical match for Stallone. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he turns in yet another in a series of phoned-in performances that date back to the Fockers movies.
Attempts at subplots also fall flat. Co-star Kim Basinger just looks bored and uncomfortable in scenes that pair her with Stallone. (Compare her lackluster efforts to the game try from Arkin, who gets the few laughs, even in scenes that force him to interact with Hart.)
Jeff Michael Vice can also be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com), and can be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff).