By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Director Peter Segal’s “Grudge Match,” starring Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone as deeply rancorous former boxers who never fought that ultimately deciding bout some thirty years ago, serves up an inconsequential but pleasant fantasy for Baby Boomers. A happy audience of said species on the night I viewed it laughingly attested to the ready market for such demographically empathetic fare.
Reasonably engrossed in the sentimental doings, and surprised to find that an old daydream of my own in the personage of Kim Basinger hadn’t let time douse the reverie, I wasn’t insulted when six teenagers abandoned the theater. After all, they had probably just seen their grandparents over the holidays. Plus, they didn’t know these guys, pals from the old neighborhood, perfectly cast and capable of smoothing over even the weakest parts of the predictable script.
So what if they’ve gained some wrinkles and need a few pills daily to control their blood pressure and cholesterol. Thanks to the enamoring magic of fiction and film, Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp, portrayed by Mr. Stallone, and Robert De Niro’s Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen, have still got it, or so they entertainingly wish to prove.
Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), the son of the scurrilous promoter who gave both fighters short shrift back in the day, looking to vindicate the family name and make a killing in the bargain, is the catalyst to the pugilistic reunion referred to by the title. Dangling the chance of redemption, revenge and a big payday to the dramatically antithetical prizefighters, the ever jabbering gadfly acerbically makes with the senior citizen jokes.
But the bulk of such humor is sprinkled good-naturedly via smartly effective, self-effacing jests that philosophically chant the bittersweet acceptance of the aging process. Both men, endearingly irascible in a neo-“Grumpy Old Men” (1993) way, while hardly as classical in their comic delivery, nonetheless make their otherwise polarized characters credible enough for the film’s farcical purposes.
Henry, soft-spoken, modest, retiring and beholding to no man, walked away from the ring with very little of his winnings intact for reasons to be divulged later. He toils in a factory and doesn’t like it when his co-workers call him champ. ‘The Kid,’ however, a publicity hound, debaucher and high-living braggart, parlayed his career into a substantial fortune that includes a famous Pittsburgh restaurant and an auto dealership.
To indelibly reaffirm, the two hate each other. And, though she doesn’t have everything to do with the undying enmity, count Kim Basinger’s Sally, the love interest — yep, even after all these years — as the biggest reason. Others tossed into the melee, and forced to take sides when the feud is revived, comprise the great Alan Arkin as Henry’s manager, Louis ‘Lightning’ Conlon, and a game cast of supporting players populating each pug’s corner. Jon Bernthal is B.J., Sally’s son and a physical trainer at Pitt, who seizes the opportunity to bond with dad. Can you guess who pop is?
Arkin calls in his chips as thespian emeritus in order to play Louis, the proverbial dirty old man, with shameless schmaltziness. Representing the Old, Old, the cantankerous cuss with a heart of gold has been bounced from one nursing home to the next. “Recalled to life” like Dickens’s Dr. Manette, but with a much saltier vocabulary, the loyal corner man is hoping to stave off the shackles of decrepitude.
Of course, this life-begins-at-80 illusion isn’t the movie’s most farfetched pipedream. Rather, it’s the idea that two men, one 67, the other 70, can rigorously train for and actually take part in a fully legitimate light heavyweight boxing match, that beseeches your complete suspension of disbelief.
Custom built to please a pleasant little conceit, it’s a bit like shelling out the shekels to rent a fantasy ride in a Ferrari…a momentary reprieve from reality. But just as you leave that experience in a vehicle costing somewhat less than $300,000, the niche audience for whom this film was constructed will, for the most part, still exit the theater as Medicare card-carrying folks in good standing.
All in all, though, the concept is much more preferable than that virtual reality thing made available as consolation to oldsters like Edward G. Robinson’s Sol Roth in “Soylent Green.” And let’s face it, popcorn, Raisinets, and Sno Caps are a lot better gustatory accompaniment than the mystery stuff they ate in that 1973 sci-fi classic.
Problem is, even if you’re amenable to taking this make-believe trip, the box office will be wanting real money. Considering the points your internal movie-deciding judges will have to therefore subtract may render “Grudge Match” a split decision, with the smart money deferring until it plays the small screen.
“Grudge Match,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Peter Segal and stars Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone and Kim Basinger. Running time: 113 minutes
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