Monday, January 6, 2014

NO GRUDGES HELD: “Grudge Match” is Disappointingly Disjointed.

I wanted to like it. I really did. 
It sounded good on paper: a faux sequel to “Raging Bull”  and “Rocky”, starring Robert DeNiro and Sylvester Stallone (who hadn’t shared the screen since Stallone’s legitimacy-questing film “Copland”) playing rival light heavyweight champions Billy “The Kidd” McDonnen and Henry “Razor” Sharp, who had won one title match each against the other. However, hopes of a definitive final “grudge match” between the two were dashed with Sharp’s sudden and unexplained retirement from professional boxing; an act which became an obsession with McDonnen for over thirty years despite his own professional financial success since.  Added to this volatile mix is the fact that Sharp’s girlfriend Sally (Kim Basinger) had a much-regretted one night stand with McDonnen that resulted in both a son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal) and the end of her relationship with Sharp. When Sharp finds himself in need of money, he takes an offer from wannabe promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart, playing a role that must have initially been envisioned for Chris Tucker) to perform motion capture for a video game which leads to his being ambushed by McDonnen and invariably leads to the long awaited grudge match between the two war horses. 
Like I said, it sounded good and had this film been made a decade ago, it probably would have been.  However, as directed by Peter Segal (“50 First Dates”), the film is long on time and short on cohesiveness. The expected meta-textual commentary and “jabs” at the roles the leads were famous for are in evidence (including a common sense take on the famous “Rocky” meat locker scene), and the story itself is solid enough.  While the film is definitely hilarious in spots, its humor comes mostly from Hart’s Slate  and the “Mickey” stand-in Louis “Lightning” Conlon (Adam Arkin playing the age card for all its worth to hilarious results). The humor regarding the leads stem mostly from their age; while expected, it gets overplayed. Worse is the fact that the scenes keep going even after the humorous points have been made, almost like a bad comic who has to explain a punch-line after its delivery. As B.J., Bernthal provides DeNiro’s “palooka” character with some humanity and is, in general, likably sympathetic. Basinger is as radiant as ever and does have a humorous moment of her own. It is understandable how the two men could hate each other so thoroughly given the characters’ backstory; if it only wasn’t undermined by the two leads. 
Stallone and DeNiro almost have great chemistry together, but something’s missing. These days, Stallone seems almost too mellow on screen (including his “Expendables” series, but not including the recent “Escape Plan”) and in his most recent films, DeNiro seems to be coasting for the paycheck.  While there are moments of poignancy and pathos between the two (most predictably in the film’s final act), there’s not much in terms of enmity between them or the hunger to finally settle scores, a condition which sabotages DeNiro’s “impassioned” speech about the two of them not being dead yet. LL Cool J, Anthony Anderson, and Rich Little also appear in the film, with Cool J having the most screen time of the three as a trainer who refuses to train McDonnen.  
The frustrating thing about a film like this is that the potential is in evidence.  Had it been made in the 90s or early 2000s, it would have carried more weight. Both Stallone and DeNiro were still trying then. Ironic that the sponsor of the fight in the film is “Geritol” given that the performances of both actors really needed a vitamin shot. Like the grudge match that takes place, this film comes years too late. It’s an okay film to watch on cable, but it could have been so much more.