There's something that feels so right about Sylvester Stallone and a boxing movie. Seriously, the Rocky star has always been at his absolute best when starring in films where the squared circle features prominently, even when he wasn't in tip-top fighting shape. And that streak continues with Grudge Match, which puts Stallone in the ring with fellow boxing warhorse Robert De Niro, honoring and stripping away at their pugilist pasts.
One can't blame the studio for hyping this as some sort of Rocky vs. Raging Bull showdown, but there's an actual plot to be found beneath all the obvious Ben-Gay jokes. Stallone is Henry "Razor" Sharp with De Niro as his longtime rival Billy "The Kid" McDonnen, who fought in two epic matches 30 years earlier, each winning one. But the rubber match never happened as Razor suddenly up and quit the fight game, choosing to live a quiet life in blue collar anonymity. Kid has hated him for it ever since, even as he's moved on to own a successful chain of businesses cashing in on his name. When the obnoxious Dante (a game Kevin Hart), the son of Razor's old promoter, shows up with a plan to make some quick helping out on a boxing video game, the ensuing brawl between Razor and Kid is captured on YouTube and goes viral. There's money to be wrung from these old pros yet, and after some arm-twisting Razor is convinced to come back and battle Kid one last time.
Stallone and De Niro, on the other hand? It's doubtful they put up much of a fight agreeing to this film. Let's be honest, neither has been all that choosey over the years but they both find something in these characters worth investing in. Stallone seems to be channeling the same beleaguered pride he brought to those later Rocky flicks, while De Niro is having fun as a hopeless braggart looking to prove his alpha male status hasn't been dulled by old age. Speaking of old age, can we call a moratorium on grouchy supporting turns by Alan Arkin? Here he plays Razor's Burgess Meredith-style trainer (all he needs is the cock-eye and appropriate snarl) in dire economic straits.
Fortunately it's not all road work and punching the heavy bag, there are plenty of secrets that emerge to complicate matters. Kim Basinger, still gorgeous as ever, shows up as the woman both men fell in love with, and Jon Bernthal plays Kid's adult son who only recently learned his father's identity.
Unless you're already punch drunk from blows to the head it's probably obvious that broad-minded director Peter Segal isn't going to focus too much on anything other than getting his two stars in the ring. The subplots don't really click, Basinger lacks chemistry with both actors, and the rapid fire jokes range from comments on De Niro's jiggling man boobs to Arkin's wildly offensive racial comments towards Hart. More of these hit than miss, though, and one can't deny the twinkle in the eye of Stallone and De Niro, especially when they finally start throwing blows. Ok, so the fight itself is slower than cold molasses and lacks energy but were we expecting Rocky II? All that matters is that we give a care about who gets their hand raised in victory. Grudge Match may not have the goods to be a champion, but it's certainly a worthy contender.