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Grudge Match: Your Burning Questions Answered

by Ethan Alter December 25, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Grudge Match</i>: Your Burning Questions Answered

What's not quite a Rocky movie and definitely not the second coming of Raging Bull? The old guys punch-a-thon, Grudge Match! We're sure you've got questions about this title bout between Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro and we've got the answers.

So in Grudge Match, Stallone comes out of retirement for one last bout when the media-at-large randomly remembers that his aging ex-boxer exists. In other words, it's a remake of Rocky Balboa, right?
Not just Rocky Balboa, but the entire Rocky franchise! Yes, the central premise is ripped directly out of the series' final installment (at least until Balboa returns in the upcoming spin-off, Creed) right down to the appearance of a video-game simulation that first gives Stallone's boxer the inkling of un-retiring. But screenwriters Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman merrily raid the other Rocky pictures for plot points as well, starting with the fact that, as in Rocky, Sly's fighter -- who goes by the nom-de-boxing Razor (real name: Henry Sharp) -- is an underdog pugilist from Pittsburgh (née Philadelphia) who many years ago got a chance to take on a better fighter, Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro).

That was followed by the Rocky II rematch that evened the score and set the stage for a Rocky III grudge bout that, unlike the second Lang vs. Balboa match, never happened. (Another dangling plot point from Rocky II turns up later on in Grudge Match, though I'll let you see that one yourself. And yes, that is a clue.) Bypassing Rocky IV (though a bit from one of the many, many training montages where Razor hauls a car through a junkyard does recall Rocky pulling a dog sled across the frozen Soviet tundra), the screenwriters move onto Rocky V by having Razor retire from boxing and promptly lose all his money, necessitating a return to the run-down neighborhood where he got his start. (On the plus side, at least he goes back to his roots without any brain damage.) It's here that he's found by fast-talking promoter George Washington Duke Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) and talked into going toe-to-toe with Billy one more time, despite their advanced ages and long-standing personal hatred. So yeah, Grudge Match is basically a Rocky highlights reel in which Stallone isn't legally allowed to go by the name Rocky.

Same goes for Raging Bull, right?
Actually, not so much. De Niro's Billy is an asshole like Jake La Motta, but he's not physically abusive or as much as a hateful, messed-up loser… probably because the studio actually wanted a mass audience to see Grudge Match opening weekend, whereas Martin Scorsese's unrepentantly dark and disturbing box office disappointment took years to amass it's now sizeable fan base. Billy has his vices -- among them, womanizing and the endless pursuit of money -- but he's not a… well, raging bull. Also, while Razor has a Mickey/Paulie analogue in the form of trainer/friend Louis (Alan Arkin, who has Burt Young's taste in hats and Burgess Meredith's salty attitude), there's no Joe Pesci stand-in hanging around De Niro. Instead, his familial relationship is with the adult son he never knew he had, B.J., played in a great bit of casting by Jon Bernthal, late of The Walking Dead.

All right -- Shane lives!
Does he ever. Not that there's a lot of competition for this award, but Bernthal is hands-down the best thing in Grudge Match. Aside from looking like he could convincingly have sprung from De Niro's loins, the guy actually carves a real character out of a role that's otherwise just a plot contrivance. The arc that he and De Niro play out is one estranged father/son cliché after another -- particularly when B.J.'s own young, adorable kid enters the frame, putting Billy in the position of having to act like a grandfather -- but damned if Bernthal doesn't hit each familiar beat forcefully. It's yet another standout supporting performance from Bernthal, who has also had scene-stealing parts in Snitch and The Wolf of Wall Street this year, as well as a strong star turn in the miniseries Mob City. All in all, getting killed off The Walking Dead is probably the best thing that could have happened to him.

Ugh… again with the young adorable kids and the old men that neglect them?
Yeah, that storyline is a total bust, as is pretty much every attempt to layer dramatic stakes on top of this highly absurd situation. The dirty secret of Grudge Match is that the grudge match itself occupies only the last 15 minutes of a 113-minute feature. So that's a lot of time to kill before the fists start flying and the screenwriters fill it with one dead-end subplot after another. Besides B.J.'s daddy issues and his kid's granddaddy issues, there's Dante's efforts to get out from under the shadow of his crooked dad -- the fight promoter who orchestrated Billy and Razor's previous bouts and made off with the latter's money -- as well as the question of Louis's living arrangements after he gets kicked out of yet another nursing home. And then there's poor Kim Basinger, wandering through the background as Razor's ex-girlfriend who, for reasons that the screenwriters only half-heartedly bother to explain, had a one night stand with Billy that resulted in B.J.'s existence and her boyfriend's decision to quit boxing. During Razor's time in purgatory, she married another guy who conveniently dies before this movie begins, leaving the door open for them to renew their romance. And guess what? They do! It's the biggest surprise since Stallone single-handedly won the Cold War by KOing Ivan Drago. (No, it's not.)

What do you think was the bigger challenge for Basinger: being married to Alec Baldwin or pretending to find Stallone's leathery face and vein-lined upper body attractive?
I'm going to say "Other" and nominate having to put up with Robert Wuhl's antics on the set of Batman instead. (Runner-up: appearing in Prince's "Batdance" video.) That said, I can't imagine it was easy to stare directly at Stallone; look, like every '80s movie brat, I've got a mile-wide soft spot for the guy, but his body has been through some serious wear and tear thanks to injuries, surgical upkeep and… um, alleged self-medication. Aside from his Halloween-mask like appearance, he's fine in the movie -- sober, subdued and suitably Stallon-ish in his cadence and gait. De Niro acts rings around him, though, and he's not even trying all that hard. Still riding whatever buzz he got from working with Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook (they only shared a few scenes together, but she was his best onscreen sparring partner since Al Pacino in Heat), he's often feisty and funny here, even though you can often spot the exact moment in a given scene when he loses interest and slips into autopilot. Those hoping for comic fireworks to erupt between the meeting of these grumpy old men will be disappointed; most of their shared scenes outside of the ring are forced and listless, so it's just as well that they're largely kept apart until the big bout.

Given how tedious a journey it is getting there, is the big fight worth the wait?
On an objective level, not really. It goes without saying that director Peter Segal (who also made the very funny Tommy Boy and the not-at-all-funny Get Smart) is no Scorsese, so it's not remotely as artful as the gorgeous brutality seen in Raging Bull. And it's also not as rousing or well-paced as any of the climactic matches from the Rocky series, even Rocky V's street rumble. Then again, how dynamic and rousing could a fight between two pushing-70 boxers be? It's not like one of them could haul off and start punching like Apollo Creed, Ivan Drago or Clubber Lang. The reason this fight -- unlike the rest of the movie -- is fun to watch is the nostalgic history the two actors bring into the ring with them. It may be absurd, but there's something satisfying about watching Balboa's glove bury itself in La Motta's face or Jake knocking Rocky to the mat with a well-timed body blow. Next up, I want to see the grudge match between Michelle Rodriguez and a reanimated Hilary Swank.

Okay, spill it... who wins?
Sure, like you expect me to give away the movie's one legitimate surprise. Let's just say that both fighters go the distance and -- shades of Rocky and Rocky Balboa -- the winner decided by split decision. (Of course, if you really, really want to know, take another look at the first three letters of the first three words in the first sentence. You're welcome.)

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