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With: Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Jon Bernthal, Kevin Hart, LL Cool J, Joey Coco Diaz, Anthony Anderson, Camden Gray
Written by: Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman, based on a story by Tim Kelleher
Directed by: Peter Segal
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sports action violence, sexual content and language
Running Time: 113
Date: 12/25/2013

Grudge Match (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Another Round

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I wish I could have been in the pitch meeting for Grudge Match. "How about this? Rocky vs. Raging Bull?" Done, and done. I just wonder why no one thought of it before. The only potential catch is that Sylvester Stallone is 67 years old and Robert De Niro is 70, but, like any "grumpy old guy" movie, Grudge Match proves that age doesn't matter, even in a physically demanding sport like boxing.

Stallone plays Henry 'Razor' Sharp (not Rocky Balboa) and De Niro plays Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen (not Jake LaMotta). Some thirty-odd years ago, they fought each other, twice, and they each lost once. These were the only losses on either of their records. It's only natural that a third fight should happen, but Razor suddenly quit the fight game, leaving the challenge unanswered.

Years later, Kid is running a bar and Razor is working in a factory. Razor has a hard time paying his bills, and when the son of his former promoter, Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), approaches with a deal, he reluctantly accepts. He's required to put on a mo-cap suit and perform for a video game. Unfortunately, Kid shows up to the session, and the two get into a brawl. A video of their fight goes viral, and talk of a rematch is sparked anew.

When Razor is laid off, he has little choice but to fight Kid. Thus begins their training programs. Razor reunites with his old trainer, the cranky Louis 'Lightning' Conlon (Alan Arkin). Kid, meanwhile, tries and fails to get the famous Frankie Brite (LL Cool J) to train him, but Frankie is more interested in being a reality TV star. At the same time, Kid meets his illegitimate son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal), for the first time and asks him to be his trainer.

Also, an old flame, Sally (Kim Basinger -- looking impossibly beautiful at age 60), enters the picture and we learn a little bit about what actually happened all those years ago. So the fight, essentially, provides a reason for these sad, lonely guys to reunite with all their loved ones and form families again. For a few minutes toward the end of the second act, Grudge Match starts to get a little sappy. But thankfully it snaps back for the finale, focusing instead on starchy humor and a little boxing action.

It's surprising how funny the movie is. Most of the humor comes from Arkin, obviously, but somehow the laughs just keep coming. It's also surprising how good the performances are, and how strong the characters are. De Niro feels like he's really playing a character, rather than sleepwalking. And, surrounded by Oscar-winning actors, Stallone proves that not only is he still a major star, but he has some real acting chops as well. (I'm not saying anyone's going to win any awards for this, but it's just better than you might expect.)

Director Peter Segal has never made a good movie before this -- with the possible exception of his debut Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) -- which is yet another surprise. Who knew he could handle these actors so well, find such a tidy pace, sprinkle in some genuine emotions, and then handle the climactic boxing match with a measure of grace? The match is not choppy or impatient, and it's rather exciting. Of course, it isn't going to -- and would never -- compare to the bouts in Rocky or Raging Bull, but it's effective, since we know a great deal about both fighters.

I wanted to laugh at this movie but I kinda ended up loving it. Opening on Christmas Day, it seems to me that it will make a better trip to the movies for older families (no young kids) than would some of the big award contenders. It packs a decent punch, but it also has a decent heart.

Warner Home Video has released the Blu-ray edition, although this kind of movie isn't exactly the best way to show off your home system, the audio-visual quality is fine. If you're a boxing fan, or a comedy fan, the extras are quite fun. First, there's a quickie 15-minute featurette, interviewing the cast and crew. Then Kevin Hart gets a couple of featurettes to himself. Real-life boxers Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Larry Holmes get two more very short extras. The rest of it is alternate beginnings, alternate endings, and deleted scenes.

Stallone released three movies in 2013, and I may be the only human being that liked all of them, though admittedly, they're all more or less guilty pleasures. Frankly, I was a bit surprised as to how much people hated Grudge Match, although the aforementioned alternate beginning and alternate endings may explain a great deal; any movie that had to be so thoroughly tested and changed before release will feel more like a product than it does a genuine entertainment.

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