2013 was a terrific year for movies … unless your name was Robert De Niro. The two-time Oscar winner starred in four movies this past year – "The Family," "The Big Wedding," "Last Vegas" and now "Grudge Match" – the best of which could be generously described as middling or mediocre.
The nadir of De Niro’s year, and possibly his entire career, seemingly came during "Last Vegas" when a sequence brought him face-to-face with Redfoo’s gyrating, thrusting package. Less than a month later, however, De Niro manages to find another new low in "Grudge Match," this time grabbing and thrusting his own crotch at his co-star Sylvester Stallone while wearing a tight green motion capture outfit.
Then again, almost all of the new boxing comedy could qualify as a new career low for De Niro (and Stallone for that matter), a stiff, desperately unfunny and lifeless film that would be awful in its own right even if it didn’t piddle on the memory of its stars’ finest movies ("Raging Bull," the "Rocky" movies) in the process.
Sly Stallone stars as Henry "Razor" Sharp, a former boxing great whose rivalry with Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro) back in the ’70s was their greatest highlight (the peak of the film’s humor is an announcer yelling, "Down goes Razor" when he gets knocked out. Because it rhymes with "Down goes Frazier." Seriously, that’s about as clever as it gets). They each won once, but as the opening voiceover exposition from Jim Lampley notes, the rubber match never happened. Before a third fight could be arranged, Sharp retired unexpectedly from the sport.
Several decades later, Sharp lives a life of quiet solitude in Pittsburgh, working at a local steel mill, living without a TV and trying to take care of his old friend and trainer Louis (Alan Arkin, his grumpy old man shtick verging on self-parody). Meanwhile, McDonnen sold out, doing all sorts of commercials and running a bar where he does half-hearted stand-up comedy with a puppet. He still bitterly desires a rematch with his old rival.
After a freak run-in at a video game studio – thus the tight green mocap suits – results in an incredibly popular viral video, McDonnen gets his wish. A boxing manager (Kevin Hart, predictably loud and obnoxious but at least he’s got some energy) arranges the rematch, which originally starts off as a joke but soon becomes a massive pay per view event.
As the two old warriors train, the past comes a knockin’. For Sharp, it’s his old girlfriend Sally (Kim Basinger) who betrayed him back in the day by sleeping with McDonnen in her loneliness, getting pregnant in the process. The kid, B.J., is now an adult (played by Jon Bernthal, formerly of "The Walking Dead," bringing as much genuine emotion as possible to the trite subplot), helping McDonnen train in the hopes of getting closer to his deadbeat dad.
"Grudge Match" reeks of mold, and it’s not just because of the geriatric actors in the leading roles. The screenplay, written by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman, pulls up every predictable cliché and hackneyed plot point from the sports movie handbook – and a few other handbooks for that matter.
The script doesn’t do itself many favors by loading up on tired references to "Dancing With the Stars" and talking about viral videos, hits and YouTube like the writers’ kids just introduced them to the Internet. The Internet is like screenwriter hipness kryptonite – every time a character says, "We got a million hits on YouTube," I groan from all of the pandering – but it’s just too convenient of a plot tool to put down.
To be fair, sports movies are a haven of clichés to begin with, and when done right – say David O. Russell’s "The Fighter" or the surprisingly good UFC drama "Warrior" – those familiar elements can still create strong, moving emotions. "Grudge Match" isn’t one of those times. The tired and lazy plot never attempts to rise above trite, and director Peter Segal ("The Longest Yard" remake, "Tommy Boy") brings no energy to film at all. Even when it finally gets to the big fight, Segal films it in a way that sucks the inherent thrill of the sport out of the event.
Every subplot and attempt at heartwarming feels half-baked and half-hearted. It tries for a "Warrior"-esque story where you follow both fighters and want to root for them both at the end, which would be great if De Niro’s character wasn’t such a raging jerk. No one wants to see both characters succeed. Considering McDonnen is a bully and a deadbeat dad who leaves kids at bars, sleeps around and throws bricks through windows, everyone – except for the screenwriters, I guess – wants to see him pummeled into the dirt.
Meanwhile, the comedy is just sad. De Niro and Stallone – mostly playing the straight man considering his limited comedic chops – should be better than embarrassing jokes about rectal exams, prison rape, "moobs" and mocking fat people. Their banter mostly involves De Niro trying to make some really tired, saggy material work while Stallone looks bored or bemused. Even alongside Arkin and Hart, it comes off like bad, joyless improv.
Each punch line is the most predictable or juvenile one available. That a character’s name is B.J. becomes a running joke is an idea that shouldn’t have made it past the writer’s table, much less a middle school lunch table. Kim Basinger actually gets the funniest line in the movie, noting offhandedly on a walk through a park with Stallone that, "I think we depressed the sh*t out of these birds" (the bar for funniest line is set pretty low).
After sitting through two hours of "Grudge Match," watching our Oscar-winning (Oscar-nominated in Stallone's case) lead actors make a mockery of themselves and some of their most beloved and celebrated films to a chorus of resounding silence, the birds won’t be the only ones depressed.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.