With Sylvester Stallone set to make his Broadway debut as book writer and producer of Rocky the musical, I was drawn to see Grudge Match, a new movie opening Christmas Day starring Stallone and Robert DeNiro as two champion boxers who enter the ring decades past their prime for a rematch. Stallone is 67 and DeNiro is 70, so it’s a ludicrous premise that might have worked as a comedy, which is how the audience is supposed to take it. But there is very little that is funny without reservation: Is it funny that the match is sponsored by Geritol? (One wonders whether the movie is as well; was this paid product placement?) In any case, the few moments of whimsy can’t make up for the lazy melodrama, and the overall embarrassment that is this film.
Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (DeNiro) were set for a title match in 1983, when Razor announced that he was retiring from the ring, effectively ending both their careers. He wouldn’t explain why and has kept mum about it ever since.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t stay mum. He did it to hurt The Kid, who slept with Razor’s girl Sally, Kim Bassinger. At 60 and still remarkably beautiful, Bassinger is nevertheless supposed to have been pining all this time for Razor, who wants nothing to do with her. If that’s not bad enough, the union between Kid and Sally produced a son, BJ, (Jon Bernthal, who played Shane in The Walking Dead.) It’s not even clear that the Kid knew he had a son, but within a few scenes, the son has become his dad’s trainer for the fight.
Ah yes, the fight. How does it come about after 30 years? That, my son, is a tale not worth telling, involving an over-eager fight promoter, and Razor being laid off from his job.
Razor had lost all his money from prize fighting, and had a lousy but steady blue-collar job and a house under a noisy overpass with extravagantly peeling paint. The Kid, meanwhile, has a sports bar called Knocked Out, and has made commercials for everything from jockey shorts to jock itch powder. “Just for the record, I never had jock itch” are the first words uttered by two-time Academy Award winning actor Robert DeNiro.
What’s most embarrassing about Grudge Match is not the schmaltz, or the desperate stabs at comedy; there are many movies that follow this same formula. It is the willingness of these two stars to trash their own best work.
There are scenes that deliberately mirror the ones we remember most fondly – Rocky in a meat locker, and with an irascible, down-on-his luck trainer (in this movie, Alan Arkin!); when Razor trains by jogging through the city in silhouette, his trainer rides in front of him in a motorized wheelchair. DeNiro, again, has become fat, entertaining a bar full of sycophants, although this time, unlike his Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, these are in throwaway scenes. None of this comes off as crafty allusion or even good-natured self-parody. Instead, it feels like half-assed plagiarism.
There are some film enthusiasts who might once have been aghast to think of the great DeNiro of Mean Streets, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull as even appearing in the same film as Sylvester Stallone, he of the Rocky and Rambo and now Expendable franchises. Those days are surely gone, thanks to more than a decade of DeNiro’s indiscriminate choices in film roles. Maybe Stallone just threw it away sooner.
James O’Neill, Eugene O’Neill’s father, was a matinee idol and consummate Shakespearean actor, Macduff to Edwin Booth’s Macbeth, who, as a young man, began playing the lead in a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo, and since it was such a lucrative role, felt driven to play it again and again – reportedly more than 6,000 times – for the rest of his life. His son saw the role as ruining his father’s career as an artist, and said that his father began to see it this way as well late in life; the character James Tyrone certainly is full of such regrets in O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Is it absurd to see a parallel in the 21st century to a couple of movie stars each with a net worth of several hundred million dollars?