The great ‘who would beat who in their prime’ filmic boxing debate has always been a popular discussion, an ultimate what-if scenario that almost always yields outlandish answers. One such set-up is that of Rocky vs. Raging Bull, and though the time to see them duke it out at their peak has long since passed, Peter Segal’s Grudge Match (2014) – which pits Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, avatars of the aforementioned characters, as boxing rivals – is still an easy sell for the majority of pugilist-loving punters. It’s an intermittently entertaining sports comedy, but for every punch it lands there are several which miss the mark.
The predictable narrative begins in 1982, with Pittsburgh boxers Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen (De Niro) and Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp (Stallone) fierce rivals in the ring, their only collective career loss coming against one another. Before the tie can be broken with a decisive third bout, Sharp suddenly and inexplicably retires, leaving Billy less than satisfied. Thirty years later, a second opportunity to settle the score comes knocking in the form of Dante (Kevin Hart), the son of their former promoter. With bills mounting up and lay-offs on the horizon, Sharp eventually obliges.
At a glance, Grudge Match’s plot seems like a familiar and increasingly featherweight one, whilst Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman’s screenplay revels in dutifully ticking off all the tried and tested sports movie clichés one by one. With the addition of multiple subplots – some of which could form the basis of an entire film all by themselves – comes a loss of focus, however, and Segal’s direction isn’t quite deft enough to make each arc equally effective. It also means that the pacing is all over the place, and while we should be getting gradually more excited about Stallone and De Niro’s impending showdown as the movie wears on, in the end we’re just waiting for them to get it over with. The film’s filler is not entirely useless though.
Though the revelations of who key characters such as Sally (Kim Basinger) and BJ (Jon Bernthal) are lack the sting they sorely need, there is heart in their interactions with our two boxers. Alongside the more dramatic scenes is some hit-and-miss humour. Homages to the Rocky franchise and Martin Scorsese’s seminal Raging Bull (1986) are generally well-judged and worth a chuckle or two, while other scenarios in which McDonnen and Sharp have to promote their fight feel lazy and contrived. The comedy that works on a more regular basis comes courtesy of the winning combo that is Hart’s Dante and Alan Arkin’s candid trainer, Louis ‘Lightning’ Conlon. Imbuing the film with some much- needed energy, the duo score many laugh-out-loud moments and their banter is a highlight.
As for Grudge Match’s headliners, both Stallone and De Niro are adequate enough as Meta versions of Rocky and Jake LaMotta. De Niro is certainly the more engaged of the ageing double act; Billy is more self-aware than his counterpart and prone to being a bit of a loud-mouth, and it’s in these sequences in particular that De Niro revels. Conversely Stallone is typically understated as Billy, but the two styles mesh nicely. Too unfocused to be memorable but not so boring as to be considered a complete waste, Grudge Match is far from the essential sports flicks its actors have starred in, but it’s watchable nonetheless. Be sure to stick around for the mid-credits sequences, too.