Review: Grudge Match (2014)

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Director: Peter Segal
Screenwriters: Tim Kelleher & Rodney Rothman
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Ireland Baldwin, Joey Diaz & LL Cool J
Runtime: 113 min // Certificate: 12a

Well, it gets full marks for predictability… Grudge Match tells the story of two ex-professional boxers – Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (DeNiro) and Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) – who are offered a fuckton of money to settle a 30 year grudge in the ring after a video of them brawling goes viral. Both men have old scores to settle, and both of them are – in their own way – running away from their past, though the fight offers them the chance to be great once more. If you think you’ve seen it all before, you have. If you think you want to see it again, it might be wise to go stick a different film on…

With its shameless smash-and-grab approach to cinematic nostalgia, Grudge Match is a classic “what if…” film that runs out of steam before the basic concept even leaves your lips. Like the dramatic equivalent of Freddy vs. Jason, it is a film that might work on paper (emphasis on “might”…) but doesn’t come together in reality. The concept is hollow, the execution is limp and uninspiring, and though it might act as a bit of wish-fulfilment for anyone who has ever thought it might be fun to see Jake La Motta go head-to-head with Rocky Balboa, it is such a cynical, humourless cash-in on the audience’s appreciation for Raging Bull and Rocky that I spent the entire runtime wishing I was watching one / both of them instead.

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Think of it like this; I love coffee and I love tea, but I don’t want to pour them into the same mug. To coin a phrase, two wrongs don’t make a right; or, in the case of Grudge Match, two rights don’t make a “better right”, not least when you show such brazen disrespect for the great material that you’re plundering. With no grasp of what it is that makes Raging Bull and Rocky so well-loved, Grudge Match’s entire existence is predicated on the notion that the audience will forgive its transgressions because of their admiration for one or both of those films. The characters might have new names, the situation might be different but the constants nods and winks to both films make the agenda plain as day; this is La Motta vs. Balboa in all but name, and you should watch it with that in mind.

The problem is, however, that Grudge Match lacks the sophistication, dramatic heft and charm of both of those films and, as such, it feels like a pale imitation of far greater material. It perhaps doesn’t help that Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI) explores all of the same ideas – the fall from grace, the return to form, and the lack of relevance that comes with aging – as Grudge Match and that wasn’t released all that long ago, nor does it help that neither Stallone nor DeNiro seem to give a single shit, but these issues fade into the background when compared to the fact that the film isn’t remotely funny. I mean come on, when you’re resorting to fart jokes at the 30-minute mark, you all but concede that you’re on a hiding to nothing, yet Grudge Match trundles on for another 90 before finally reaching its unceremonious end. Fair enough, I laughed now and then but I never felt like I was laughing with the film, rather I felt like I was laughing in embarrassment at what it was trying – and failing – to do. The jokes are lame and when you look at Stallone and DeNiro you can tell that they’re ashamed to be telling them, yet still they soldier on, valiantly and miserably, all in the name of salvaging something from the wreckages that are their careers.

Another major problem is that Grudge Match feels like it wants to be taken at least a little bit seriously. The comedy (“comedy”) is intertwined with mawkish clichés about friendship, rivalry and family, in some vain attempt to set itself apart from the films that it is all but plagiarising. The romance between Razor and his old flame Sally (Basinger) comes out of nowhere and develops without a hitch, thus depriving it of drama, while DeNiro’s grandfather shtick is borderline infuriating. Either Segal has seen far too many cheap Rocky knock-offs in his time and has had his brain addled by them or he hasn’t seen enough and thinks that he’s being original and exciting. Either way, his film is a two-hour long cliché that possesses not one single shred of originality.

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As for the performances… well, we know what to expect from DeNiro these days, so his utter ambivalence to his profession no longer irritates me the way it used to, but I just cannot fathom what possessed him to trample all over Raging Bull’s legacy in such a pitiful way. By all means reduce the quality of your own obituary, but at least leave your earlier work out of it. His performance here is awful, so much so that he’s acted off the screen by Stallone who, though also phoning it in, at least tries to recreate some of the old Rocky charm. The supporting cast is made up of some decent actors, which makes the film all the more unbearable – Arkin is laughable as Razor’s curmudgeonly old coach, while Basinger is there purely because she’s the hottest 60 year old they could find.

Grudge Match isn’t completely turgid but it’s mediocre and proud of it. It’s the ultimate “meh” film; low on laughs, low on drama, high on nostalgia and brimming with predictability. I didn’t hate it because there isn’t enough to hate. It just isn’t a patch on the films it attempts to throw back to and, as such, you can’t help but wish you were watching Raging Bull or Rocky instead of sitting through Grudge Match