Grudge Match review
Stallone and De Niro come face to face (again) in Grudge Match. Here's our review...
When Rocky Balboa hit cinema screens back in 2006, there was an incredible amount of cynicism attached to Sylvester Stallone’s return to the cinematic franchise that catapulted his career to super stardom. For many there was easy mileage in making jokes about Stallone’s advancing age, or in accusing him of cashing in on an old brand in a desperate attempt to have one final box office hit, yet his love of the character and the sheer determination to write and direct a glorious last hurrah for the beloved Balboa (well, apart from the upcoming TV series Creed) worked and worked well.
Frighteningly, it’s now been eight years since Sly’s last big screen boxing opus, but he’s proved that punching the living daylights out of things is still very much his forte, with a constant stream of action flicks keeping him busy ever since; another Rambo, two Expendables (with a third due out in August), Escape Plan and Bullet To The Head – he certainly couldn’t be accused of slacking. With Grudge Match then, there was never a concern this time as to whether Stallone could physically cut it, but whether the film would defame the name of Rocky that he had fought so hard to maintain.
Ignoring Rocky V, obviously.
Thankfully Grudge Match plays out like an alternate version of Rocky II, as Stallone’s retired boxer, Henry “Razor” Sharp, is challenged to a rematch by the bruised ego of Robert De Niro’s Billy “The Kid” McDonnen. It recalls the Apollo Creed/Balboa dynamic of an overly aggressive and media hungry opponent harassing his humble adversary - there’s even egg drinking, a grey hoodie and a bad TV commercial, though sadly it’s not for Beast aftershave.
The references to both Rocky and Raging Bull are present throughout the film, as was to be expected, but they’re affectionate and don’t actually obstruct Grudge Match from being engaging in its own right, especially as the main purpose of the film is to work as a comedy and in that area it’s a success. The jokes and self-deprecation needed for such a film mostly hit the mark, though the sheer amount of puns thrown out in quick succession mean at times there seems to be a ‘see what sticks’ mentality.
The one constant source of comedy gold is Alan Arkin, a legend who’s spent years perfecting his uniquely scathing and sarcastic delivery. In Grudge Match he’s cast as Stallone’s Mickey-esque trainer, an unrepentant source of ire who effortlessly steals every scene he’s in without batting an eyelid, especially when facing off against the broke fight promoter wannabe, Dante Slate Jnr, played by Kevin Hart.
The dramatic and emotional core of the film, such as it is, rests mostly on the broad shoulders of Jon Bernthal and it’s all the better for it. Bernthal is best known to most as Shane Walsh from The Walking Dead, but this year alone has seen him alongside DiCaprio in the superb The Wolf Of Wall Street, as well as taking the lead in Frank Darabont’s latest foray into genre TV – Mob City.
Bernthal’s role is far more substantial here than in Wolf, and he’s given ample time to shine when standing alongside a heavyweight like De Niro, proving that if there’s any justice in the world he’s destined to become a much bigger success. Strangely having watched all of his 2014 output within the last few weeks, they all make reference to his broken nose, which seems a rather odd fixation, as I don’t remember it ever being the case in The Walking Dead, or for any other star to have a physical attribute pointed out so readily and across a variety of projects, but there you go.
Kim Basinger rounds out the supporting cast, but seems strangely out of place. While everyone else gives it their all she seems strangely wooden and awkward, though that may be on account of her character having nothing really substantial to do. Basinger has always excelled at playing strong, sensuous characters, or tormented damsels in distress (for a prime example give Cellular a watch – Basinger, Chris Evans and The Statham), but in Grudge Match she’s merely saddled with the ‘ex who still loves her man’ lot, which was never going to a rich source of inspiration.
Of course the pay off and main draw for the film was always going to be the titular Grudge Match, which after some nostalgically exciting training montages, is delivered in fine style and manages to be surprisingly gripping. The fight adheres to the classic Rocky style of showing the first few rounds in full, before skipping through to the last moments via another trusty montage, but there was never any need to fix a formula that’s always worked. Both actors look frighteningly fit and despite Stallone’s physical advantage (he looks capable of pulling De Niro apart at the limbs) there’s a nice handicap to level the field.
Years of adoration towards the Italian Stallion or Jake LaMotta’s antics will obviously taint your appreciation of Grudge Match, as so much of the thrill is dependent on your love of seeing the former champs going head to head, but the film is still an entertaining slice of fun that manages to stay just the right side of sentimental, while keeping the laughs coming at a constant pace. At times it flirts with rising above its novel premise, but never quite manages to, making for a fun but forgettable night's viewing.
Grudge Match is out now in UK cinemas.