Friday, December 27, 2013

'Grudge Match' Past its Prime

Rocky Balboa fighting Jake LaMotta sounds like it should be a fan film, or maybe part of an unlockable secret mode in the Fight Night video game series, instead of a full-length motion picture. But that's the idea (at least in the marketing) behind Grudge Match, a sports comedy from a director who at least has some experience in that genre (but also Adam Sandler movies).

The movie pits Sylvester Stallone against Robert DeNiro - as Henry "Razor" Sharp and Billy "The Kid" McDonnen respectively - rival boxers who once upon a time fought one another in a series of epic bouts. But one man's retirement to prevent the deciding tiebreaker, shocking everybody and preventing the pair from settling the score once and for all. Thirty years later, circumstances and one very determined fight promoter (Kevin Hart) force them to face one another again, and despite their advanced age and diminished physical prowess, both find they really want this final fight. And as comedies released on Christmas goes, this has all the elements of a straightforward crowd-pleaser (not surprising, as it's from director Peter Segal, whose movies tend to draw crowds even as they repel critics). But does that premise work well for a feature, or does it turn into a featherweight come midnight?
Worst name for a PPV event, ever.
Well, it does work, kind of. We get to know each of our warriors right off the bat, and that's where things immediately start to fall flat. It's obvious from the get-go that we're supposed to be rooting for Razor, as thirty years ago he lost the girl (Kim Basinger), his will to go on with boxing, and to top it all off  was robbed of his winnings by his crooked promoter. He's easily got the most to reclaim, and getting his life back on track is a noble, well-trod goal in sports films. 
It's the small guys you have to watch out for.
Kid, meanwhile, is... an unrepentant, narcissistic asshole. I get that it's kind of close to De Niro's Raging Bull role, but when you have two heavyweights (and I mean from stardom and character development standpoints, not weight class) headlining your movie, you need to give them both a reason to resonate with the audience. Can you imagine Warrior if you had not been able to connect with the roles of BOTH Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy? Giving both sides an emotional stake in the climactic fight is extremely important, but Kid doesn't have anything besides his pride on the table. Unlike Razor, he doesn't really need the money, attention or family to fulfill his needs (although he does connect with his illegitimate son, played by Jon Bernthal). He just wants to win to satisfy his ego. There's no reason to root for Kid, making De Niro's contributions to the film somewhat moot, since he's not even treated like the kind of straight-up villain who would NORMALLY only need the restoration of his pride as the ultimate goal.
Sixteen years after winning that Oscar, she's back in crap.
Grudge Match does make up some ground with how it treats its secondary characters, all of whom add significantly to the story. A REALLY bad movie would have overused the two most popular and humor-friendly members of the cast - Hart and Alan Arkin - to the point of annoyance. Instead, all the supporting actors have an equal responsibility for progressing the plot, and are used no more than they are absolutely needed. Now, I might have LIKED more output by Hart, who is close to becoming one of Hollywood's breakout comedic stars, especially since he's the funniest part of this movie and his absence is pretty keenly felt by the audience. And while I'm not his biggest fan, having Arkin on screen here is infinitely better than when there's NO Arkin on screen. And when you think about it, there's nothing funny about Stallone or De Niro, which is odd when you remember that this is supposed to be a sports COMEDY, not a sports DRAMA. Hart and Arkin are absolutely necessary to making the movie even remotely funny, and when they're not around, there's nobody else to pick up the slack. It would have even made sense for Segal to lean on these two actors, as he doesn't have the makings of a GREAT movie on his hands to justify being economical with their usage. Grudge Match needed more from these two, but never quite figured that out in time.
Free Kevin Hart! We want Ride Along!
From an inspirational sports comedy perspective, the rest plays out in a fairly normal fashion. Though Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman have mostly worked on television, their screenplay moves the story along smoothly, getting our heroes back into fighting shape, dealing with one antother's presence and tackling their personal issues in standard, unsurprising ways. That's the other major problem with the movie, as there's nothing here that catches you off guard in the way a good sports movie will often do. It's all fairly straightforward, and the few niggling plot threads are sewn up pretty quickly. I don't expect a genius story to come from Segal's editing room (this is the man who brought us Get Smart and Anger Management, after all), but a little bit of complexity would have been a welcome addition to a movie that has no real surprises in store. 
That is not a flattering shade of green.
Even with all of Grudge Match's flaws, there's still a bit of nostalgic fun in seeing Rocky and Jake square off in the third act, giving the film a nice boost of charm. It's too bad that this feels required, however, as without that particular face-off this is a title that needed a lot more polish if it was going to be anything decent. It's not even particularly funny, as there just aren't enough humorous elements to magically transform it into the comedy it bills itself as. Instead, Grudge Match is instantly forgettable, especially when you consider how many superior theatrical options are available right now. If you really, desperately want to see that fictionally iconic match-up, it'll still be there when the DVD is released, but otherwise there's absolutely no reason to run out there to see it right now.

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