If ever a premise hinged on casting two specific stars, Grudge Match is it.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
Take Sylvester Stallone from Rocky and Robert De Niro from Raging Bull the two most iconic boxing movies and flash forward four decades. Now these tough old geezers step into the ring against each other.
The resulting comedy should be critically scored a split decision, with the outcome favoring the defending champs.
Henry Razor Sharp (Stallone) quit the sport 30 years ago after winning a rematch against rival Billy The Kid McDonnen (De Niro), refusing to ever fight him again. But the years havent been kind to Henry, who works a factory job in Pittsburgh, where both fighters grew up. Unmarried and with no kids, his only close friend is ex-manager Louis (Alan Arkin in full curmudgeon mode).
On the other side of town, Billy has capitalized on his celebrity, running a thriving car dealership and neighborhood tavern called Knocked Out. The two foes havent spoken to each other in 30 years. Henry is still furious that Billy bedded his then-girlfriend, Sally (Kim Basinger). Billy has always hated his opponent for quitting before they could have a third, deciding fight.
When motor-mouthed promoter Dante (Kevin Hart) persuades the boxers to provide motion-capture moves for a legends video game, the pair accidentally meet in the studio and get into a brawl. The footage goes viral, and the ensuing attention is enough to convince them to get in shape for a match billed as Grudgement Day.
But how not to embarrass themselves? Billys bartender warns him of the reasons he shouldnt step into the ring: Youre fat. Youve got a bad back. Weak knees. Youre fat.
After sitting through plenty of movies this year that prefer star power regardless of how miscast the results (heres looking at you The Butler), its refreshing to see how easily the lead and supporting actors slip into their Grudge Match roles.
The 5-foot-2 comedian Kevin Hart adds nervous energy to every scene, like a less-annoying Chris Tucker. Most of his part involves talking people into things, as when he badgers the fighters into moving the match to a bigger venue: (This is) a different type of money. Im talking Kardashian sex tape money.
Oscar winner Kim Basinger is 60! Credit to the filmmakers to find a sexagenarian this sexy, instead of casting someone in their 40s and pretending it makes sense in the timeline. The best addition is Jon Bernthal (late of TVs The Walking Dead) as De Niros illegitimate son, who conveniently portrays a collegiate strength and conditioning coach (cue training montage). He bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor, right down to an identical broken nose.
Journeyman director Peter Segal (Get Smart) stages the boxing scenes more like Rocky than Raging Bull straightforward with plenty of haymakers. The 67-year-old Stallone and 70-year-old De Niro (who both effectively underplay potential caricatures) look like they can still throw a mean right hook. Whether thats the product of personal trainers, editing or plain old acting, the illusion is sustained.
Its tricky when famous actors resurrect their archetype characters. Theres always the possibility it can erode the memory of the original films (think Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) rather than build interest in a contemporary outing. Grudge Match could have been a cash-grab disaster. Instead, its sort of respectable.
As Sally tells Henry before the big finale, No matter how hard you work, it wont be your best.
Henry replies, Its the best we got.
Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, sexual content and language.