In the 1980s, there was no greater sport than boxing. And two of its best champions were Billy “the Kid” McDonnen and Henry “Razor” Sharp. Each man only lost once in their professional career: to each other. With a third meeting on the horizon, Sharp suddenly retired. He went back to his old job at a foundry, while McDonnen opened a restaurant, where he entertains patrons nightly with a puppet, mostly talking about how Sharp ducked him. But as is always the case in sports, there’s more than meets the eye to the truth.
Fun to watch, with enough action to go along with the laughs, “Grudge Match” could have been billed as Jake LaMotta vs Rocky Balboa, the boxing alter egos that earned De Niro and Stallone Oscar nominations (and the prize in De Niro’s case). In the most off-putting part of the film we are shown early boxing footage of the two, clearly taken from “Raging Bull” and “Rocky III.” This is fine. But in the scenes where the two “fight” each other, it’s obvious that the filmmakers have tried to digitally put the two actor’s faces on much younger bodies, an effect that makes the two look like they’re boxing in front of a fun house mirror.
When a young promoter (Kevin Hart) approaches both men with a deal to appear in a video game, they both reluctantly agree. It’s while throwing a few friendly jabs that the two let their dislike for each other show. The ensuing scuffle ends up on YouTube and soon the world is clamoring for the real thing. Billing it as “Grudgement Day,” Billy and Henry finally agree to the rematch that has eluded them for decades. As they prepare for the fight we learn that Henry retired after his girlfriend, Sally (Basinger), slept with Billy and had his baby. All grown up, the boy (Jon Bernthal, who looks like he could be De Niro’s son) takes on the job of training his pop while Henry turns to his old trainer, Louis Conlon (a very funny Alan Arkin). Of course things go badly when Sally also re-enters the picture.
The cast is well suited to the material, with both De Niro and Stallone showing a knack for comedy (De Niro has done it in the past with the “Meet the Parent” films but I’m pretty sure I’m the only person reading this that actually liked Stallone in “Rhinestone” or “Oscar”). Arkin has apparently snagged all of the great “aging wise-ass” roles in Hollywood, including last years’ Oscar nominated turn in “Argo.” He’s just as good here. Bernthal gives a solid performance as does Basinger, who seemingly hasn’t aged since the 1980s. And both De Niro (age 70) and Stallone (age 67) show some stamina during the climactic fight that ends the film. If there is a false note here it’s the young boy that plays De Niro’s grandson, He’s too precocious and cute to be a part of this family!