DIR: Peter Segal • WRI: Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman • PRO: Michael Ewing, Bill Gerber, Mark Steven Johnson, Ravi D Mehta, Peter Segal • DOP: Dean Semler • ED: William Kerr • DES: Wynn Thomas •Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Kim Basinger, Kevin Hart, Jon Bernthal, LL Cool J
For a number of years, debate has raged as to which film is most deserving of the ‘best boxing movie of all-time’ mantle. For instance, whenever a new entry to the genre is greeted with some form of critical acclaim (such as David O. Russell’s 2011 awards favourite The Fighter), it is often described as the ‘best boxing film since Rocky’. Often, this seems like a heightened case of hyperbole, especially when you consider that Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull was released back in 1980, a full four years after Sylvester Stallone’s career-making turn as the ‘Italian Stallion’.
There have been compelling arguments for either film being the very best of its kind, while some have stated that Rocky is ‘the greatest boxing movie’, whereas Raging Bull is ‘the greatest movie about boxing’, which does offer a vague (if nonetheless significant) distinction. What is generally accepted, though, is that both films have set a benchmark that has proven to be extremely difficult to follow.
Although, Stallone’s Balboa is a fictional creation, and Raging Bull’s protagonist (Jake LaMotta) was a real-life World Middleweight Champion, many have wondered who exactly would win in a fight between the two, and with the release of the Peter Segal-directed Grudge Match, we are given some form of answer to that quandary.
Eight years after he last donned a pair of red gloves for the nostalgic Rocky Balboa, 67-year-old Stallone is Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp, while Robert De Niro (who won the second of two Oscars for his portrayal of LaMotta) is his long-time adversary, Bill ‘The Kid’ McDonnen. During their prestigious careers, Sharp and McDonnen fought each other twice, with McDonnen winning the first duel, before Sharp gained revenge in their second bout.
A final grudge match between the two was anticipated, but when Razor unexpectedly announced his retirement, the opportunity for a definitive confrontation had passed. Some 30 years later, they come to blows once again during the production of a computer game, and when the recorded incident goes viral, a young up-and-coming boxing promoter (Kevin Hart) begins to sell the idea of a third fight between the pair (billed as “Grudgement Day”).
Drawing on the exhibition fight motif of Rocky’s sixth cinematic outing, much of the film details the arduous preparation that the two elder statesman have to engage in as they aim to be in tip-top shape for their elongated return to the ring. While Razor hooks up with his former trainer Lightning (Alan Arkin, in typical scene-stealing form), Kid finds himself working alongside his long-lost son (Jon Bernthal) from a brief relationship with Kim Basinger’s Sally Rose, a former flame of Razor.
Certainly, with two heavyweights like De Niro and Stallone, and dependable supporting players like Arkin, Basinger and Bernthal (who can currently be seen sporting a handlebar moustache in The Wolf Of Wall Street), there is enough of a pedigree to make Grudge Match a worthwhile endeavour. The major problem it faces, however, relates to the tone of the film.
Whereas Rocky and Raging Bull were dramatic pieces, Grudge Match is very much played for laughs, with more than a fair share of references to the back catalogue of the principle stars. In the form of Segal, the film certainly has a helmer who is comfortable directing comedy, but despite enjoying great success throughout his career, much of his recent output has been workmanlike at best.
Indeed, much of the time Grudge Match seems overly reliant on the easy charm of its cast, and although the key players do their level best, they can only sustain momentum for so long. Having set-up the trajectory of the story within the opening half-hour, the script also appears to lack some much-needed inspiration, in spite of the input by Entourage creator Doug Ellin.
It also becomes more and more clichéd during the final act, and it is disappointing to see the nature of the relationship between Razor and Kid changing when it would seem more appropriate for the levels of hostility to grow.
That said, there is still some pleasure in seeing two veterans of the screen (De Niro has now reached the septuagenarian stage of his life) meeting face-to-face in an intense, and physically-exhausting battle, and when the titular ‘grudge match’ finally takes place, it does provide a satisfactory climax to the action.
The use of stock footage and digital trickery at the start of the film to show how Razor and Kid developed their rivalry over the years is also rather impressive, and there are some fleetingly funny moments throughout, most of them involving Arkin and Hart – a very popular stand-up comedian on Stateside.
Perhaps it would have been more advantageous for Grudge Match to have been made back in the mid-1980s, when both Stallone and De Niro were able to convince as genuine contenders for a World Championship crown. However, for those who are still looking to answer the immortal Balboa or LaMotta conundrum, then Grudge Match will have to make do.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Grudge Match is released on 24th January 2014