It will come as a surprise to none that Grudge Match is so wantonly clichéd that to watch it is to explore the outer perimeters of one’s own tolerance for a specific type of feel-good sports film. The movie is its casting: Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone star as a pair of flaccid, blotch-faced former prizefighters who haven’t touched gloves (or exchanged words) in three decades. While Razor (Stallone) has evaporated into blue-collar Pittsburgh, Kid (De Niro) owns both a steakhouse and a car dealership, immodestly cashing in on his legendary reputation—booze, womanizing, mugging it up for the camera—whenever the opportunity strikes. Eventually a promoter (Kevin Hart) arranges for both men to lend their skills to a video-game firm, and Kid ambushes Razor’s motion-capture session, demanding a rematch. The ensuing brawl, with both men dressed in spotless neon-green bodysuits, is picked up by an onlooker’s phone, fast becoming a viral sensation. Emboldened, Hart arranges for them to re-enter the ring in an event he hypes as “Grudgment Day.”
The film’s sole mystery is what happened to turn Kid and Razor from mere opponents into enemies, and necessary background information about their past lives—and the woman (Kim Basinger) who came between them—is dumped on the audience in parallel to preparation for the big showdown. Freshly laid off, Razor is singleminded in his pursuit of victory, whereas Kid, who doesn’t particularly need the money, has a more personal axe to grind. Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman’s script takes itself most seriously when addressing Kid’s lack of moral center, but the attempt to root De Niro in the real world juts out gawkily next to Stallone’s archetypical seen-it-all-strongman—as if Jake LaMotta and Rocky Balboa could even exist in the same universe. On the other hand, it’s admirable for a big-budget Hollywood film to spend so much energy on such a consistently terrible human being, and the insinuation that Kid might actually beat Razor (despite being, at best, an antihero) lends an intriguing, unspoken stake to the proceedings.
The resultant mix is crude: the tropes are mythic and universal on Stallone’s end, shrilly biographical on De Niro’s. It’s a given that we’re rooting for Razor, but his tortuous doubt about whether or not to go through with the big fight wears itself out well before he makes his final decision. (Stallone’s grotesque self-seriousness is well mediated by left-hook one-liners from a supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin and LL Cool J.) The match itself is edited within an inch of its life, camera hovering sub-adam’s apple so neither of these wrinkled stars has to endure an embarrassing shot for more than a few seconds. Razor and Kid find a rapprochement that allows them to simply beat the hell out of each other, with a sadism and fury that’s never once alluded to in the film’s prior text, which could have given foundation to an entirely different exploration of the interplay between masculinity, media attention, and self-punishment. With its meta stunt casting, Grudge Match can’t help but kick up these kinds of ideas, but to watch the film is to spend two hours seeing them escape De Niro and Stallone’s grasps.