Who’d have won if Muhammad Ali had given George Foreman his sought after rematch?  Imagine they fought now.  Who’d win?  Given Ali’s Parkinson’s, Foreman obviously, but there lies the attraction of Grudge Match, a Grumpy Old Men retread that pitches two of American cinema’s greatest icons against each other in a sluggish fantasy slugfest. 

30 years after their last fight, legendary boxing rivals Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) get a second shot at glory when a chance meeting reignites their simmering feud and the viral popularity of the video of their encounter leads to offers of a lucrative deciding rematch. 

Both men are long retired from the fight game, Kid, having milked his fame for all it’s worth, is now a successful car dealer and restaurant owner with a Jake LaMotta-esque nightclub act but still blames Razor’s impromptu retirement for ruining both their careers while Razor is barely getting by, still working in the shipyard he worked in before becoming a boxer and nursing his hatred of Kid who slept with his girlfriend. 

When the son of their former manager Dante Slate Jr. (the ferociously unfunny Kevin Hart) sets up a pay-per-view TV grudge match it’s a chance for the two aging fighters to make some easy money and exorcise a few demons, for Razor to reconcile with his ex Sally (Kim Basinger), for Kid to build a relationship with the adult son, BJ (Jon Bernthal), he had with Sally and for Kid and Razor to finally find out who’s the better boxer. 

It’s tempting to write Grudge Match off as more Raging Bullshit than Raging Bull and while the film coulda been a contender its not the disaster it could so easily have been.  Ham-fistedly directed by Peter Segal from a mediocre script by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman, Grudge Match’s pitting of superannuated pugilists Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta against each other smacks of the easy payday Hart’s Slate sets up in the film but, unsure whether it’s a broad old geezer comedy or a straight drama, in the hands of Stallone and De Niro it becomes something more soulful, an ode to old age, regret and second chances. 

Both stars are obviously having fun with their iconic personas and share an irascible chemistry but while De Niro mugs his way through much of the film on auto-pilot (much as he has in every film since Heat) there’s a real wistfulness to Stallone’s performance, his scenes with an underused but on form Basinger have a melancholic poignancy while Jon Bernthal (looking like a young Bobby) shines as Basinger and De Niro’s son.  Meanwhile, in the kind of ear-bleedingly unfunny, obnoxious performance that almost makes you nostalgic for Chris Tucker in his prime, Kevin Hart leaves Alan Arkin (as Stallone’s aging trainer) to shoulder much of the comedy, as he once again expertly plays Alan Arkin.   

Lumbering and obvious when it should dance, with each laugh telegraphed like one of Stallone’s haymakers, there’s a sweetness and creaky likeability to the film that ensures that while you never quite feel like you’re watching the Thrilla in Manila, Grudge Match at least feels like a solid, enjoyable undercard bout.  Sure, it’s clichéd and predictable, working through each and every boxing trope you can think of (the stumblebum boxer fighting on despite a potentially crippling/fatal injury, the aging athlete connecting with his estranged kid, training montages, underdogs triumphing against the odds), but it’s fun.  In a telling scene, on the eve of the fight, Basinger’s Sally tells Stallone’s Razor “No matter how hard you guys work, you won’t be your best,” Stallone replying “It’s the best we got.” She’s right but so is he. Grudge Match may not be the best film Stallone and De Niro ever made but, right now, it’s the best we got.

VERDICT: [rating=3]

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