Review: 'Grudge Match'

Kevin Hart, by a rather large margin, is the best thing about "Grudge Match". He brings a frenetic energy to the proceedings, jolting the film from its stupor, landing one-liner after one-liner, all in a herculean effort to salvage otherwise bad material. "This Kevin Hart guy," you find yourself thinking, at some point in the movie, "is doing well". Having said that, there's perhaps there's one more thing you should know regarding Kevin Hart's performance: he's only in about 20 minutes of this fiasco, which runs nearly two hours. Ruh-roh.

Long-retired boxer Henry 'Razor' Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) works in what would seem to be a steel refinery in beautiful Pittsburgh, PA. He's a hardscrabble type, gruff and not prone to using his words. He doesn't own a television, but if he had he might have noticed that ESPN aired an anniversary segment chronicling his famous match with Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen (Robert De Niro), some 30 years prior. This was a rivalry for the ages, the second pugilistic war between the men, and when the final bell sounded Sharp had defeated McDonnen to even the record between the two titans. The third match was to decide the ultimate victor, only this match never happened, lost to mysterious motivations on the part of Sharp, who backed out of the fight. And now? Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen owns a boxing-themed restaurant and car dealership, while 'Razor' Sharp works at the aforementioned plant and has avoided the limelight for three decades. Enter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart, mercifully) into the equation.

Slate's dad, Sr., was the promoter who put together the original McDonnen-Sharp matches, and, in the grand tradition of boxing, he was also the guy that ripped everyone off. Young Dante has nothing to do with dad, (whom in the film has ceased to be) but he's got an offer for the two grizzled prizefighters, an easy score, thousands of dollars to do some green screen work for a new boxing game. Sharp reluctantly agrees, and McDonnen happily signs on (he wants to see/fight Sharp in the worst way possible) which sets the stage for a new era in their relationship. They are supposed to come to the game studio at different times to record their motion capture, but instead they overlap, and a video of the fracas they get into goes viral. Which naturally leads to people wanting to see them fight again, all these many years later. Premise established!

All of this would basically be okay, I mean, there's been shoddier setups for movies that ended up decent, but the problem here is the reliance on the most tired of plot devices; accomplishing nothing more than the elongation of the film. Here's the even more strange part, Sharp (Stallone) plays a boxer that simply quit, disappearing from the public eye with no regret in his late 30s (I'll bang the irony gong when you're ready). Thus, the "suspense" of the film, if one was feeling generous, boils down to 1) Why Sharp quit and 2) Nothing else. No, wait! There's a romantic angle too, in the form of Kim Basinger, as a gal named Sally, who was romantically intertwined with both gents. She has a son too, who just happens to be McDonnen's, and again, if one was feeling kind, you could say "Grudge Match" is about the idea of their estrangement. Really you'd say neither though, because no one is that accommodating, and "Grudge Match" isn't about romance or father/son, because it's mostly about preparing for the eventual match; a batch of scenes adding up to nothing less than horrid.

Enter Alan Arkin as Sharp's trainer. His role in the film seems to be just to tell us everyone involved is old, just in case we hadn't noticed this salient fact prior. Indeed, the main tactic of "Grudge Match" seems to be to deal with the elephant in the room, that everyone about to punch each other is pushing 70, by turning the whole film into an elephant room. It's almost like the child who gets an F on a test, and to distract everyone from his poor performance he decides to light the garage on fire. Tricked ya! But by doing this you begin to viscerally hate the people involved, and become unsure as to why exactly these two are hopping back into the ring. There are plenty of training montages, all slightly repetitive and rote, plus more than a few "dramatic" scenes involving what it means to be a dad or exploring why someone who loved you 30 years ago hasn't spoken to you since. Sad drivel, these.

There are also the scenes where we see that, hey, these old guys have still got "it", but then, as if somehow overtly embarrassed and self-aware, "Grudge Match" will pivot right back to a prostate or fiber joke. By wanting to cede the whole thing is slightly ridiculous "Grudge Match" then plays as slightly pointless, which couldn't have been their intent. Really, they'd have been better off playing it not for laughs, because the most impressive moments in the film came from mining the idea that these were warriors who happened to be aging, not old guys trying to fit into warrior costumes.

Truly, Stallone has the physique and charm to pull off a film like this, and I'm pretty sure Robert De Niro could still pummel most of us into submission without even breaking a sweat. Remarkably, the flesh was willing, it was the writing and spirit that was unable to piece together anything nearing a coherent narrative. The last ten minutes are pretty solid, once the finally fight gets underway, as are the times when Kevin Hart is being Kevin Hart. Everything else? Like a swollen fighter's eye, it shoulda been cut.

SCORE: 3.2 / 10

Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and, unless they used CGI, can do less pull-ups than Bobby De Niro.