On paper, the team-up of Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro in the boxing comedy "Grudge Match" seems like a match made in cinematic heaven. The actors made their marks on film history by playing two very different pugilists, with Stallone playing the affable Rocky in the series of films of the same name and DeNiro taking on the bitter alcoholic Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull." This combination of talent would have made movie fans drool in anticipation if it had happened during the '80s, but in 2013, it feels more like a nostalgia exercise than a platform for the actors to push their careers forward.
Sylvester Stallone has lived on his Rocky persona for over three decades, trading the Italian Stallion's underdog beginnings for box office glory and turning the stand-alone "Rocky" into a series of sequels that became increasingly over the top with each film. At the time of the 1976 film, Stallone was praised for his acting, with Roger Ebert going as far as to compare him to Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront." However, Stallone never capitalized on that pedigree, instead opting to become arguably the premiere action star of the '80s with films such as "Cobra" and "First Blood." By the twenty-first century, his contributions to cinema boiled down to the "Rambo" and "Rocky" films, both of which he continued to mine before turning his attention toward the "Expendables" series. "Grudge Match" even references "Rocky" with a knowing nod to the famous meat locker scene from the original film.
DeNiro's acting trajectory has gone a different way, with him achieving critical and commercial praise in multiple genres. His work with Scorsese is a highlight, capturing the complex morality of his characters in films such as "Casino" and "Goodfellas." By the late '90s, he was even spoofing his hard image in "Analyze This," a commercially successful comedy that paved the way for "Meet the Parents." In recent years, DeNiro has struggled to reclaim the highs of his early and middle years, seemingly bent on taking roles that are less than challenging. Only recently has he returned to the critical praise he was once known for with his part in "The Silver Linings Playbook," which brought him an Academy Award nomination. However, even that role paled in comparison to the ferocity on display in "Raging Bull." Playing Jake LaMotta, DeNiro dug deep into his method-acting bag of tricks to turn in one of the most powerful performances of his career, one that will be remembered long after his career has ended.
In the context of their respective careers, "Grudge Match" is a movie fan's dream, pitting the one-time LaMotta against the perennial Rocky Balboa. That it comes so late in the actors' careers is something of a disappointment—seeing a sixty-seven-year-old fight a seventy-year-old is nowhere near as exciting as watching a thrity-seven-year-old against a forty-year-old. Still, seeing these two actors together, even if they're not playing their classic boxing characters, is something of a treat and creates a kind of alternate history where some brave filmmaker dared to pit these two actors in a serious drama.
Alas, this is a comedy not a drama, one that gently pokes fun at both the actors' images without letting them do any true acting work. Make no mistake, this is a farce, and it should be viewed with low expectations and an understanding that both DeNiro and Stallone have been in better films. With that in mind, this is an enjoyable movie that wants little other than to entertain and feed the viewer's sense of nostalgia. Yes, "Grudge Match" would've been the movie of the year in 1982, but in 2013, it stands as little more than a curiosity, a slight diversion that could serve as a gateway to better films.
Stallone seems game in the role of Henry "Razor" Sharp, playing with his own image while marching through a minefield of clichés. DeNiro is fine as well in a role that demands little other than grimacing and loud talking. Nevertheless, when the two are on screen at the same time, there's a spark of that old magic, hinting at a depth that a better director than Peter Segal could uncover. The audience is left with "Grudge Match," an okay film that is nowhere near as bad as it could've been.