No hard feelings might’ve been a more appropriate title for this unpunchy dramedy. Not only do the combatants fail to muster much animosity for one another, they also seem incapable of incurring anyone else’s wrath, regardless of their cock-ups. What good is a boxing flick that’s unkeen on conflict?
The story’s rooted in what should’ve been a bout for the ages: the tie-breaking third tilt between Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp (Sylvester Stallone, flexing hangdog charm) and Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen (Robert De Niro, content playing the clownish heel). However, Sharp handed in his gloves on the eve of the showdown, denying Billy the satisfaction of knowing who was best.
When the former pugilists cross paths 30 years later and come to blows while shooting motion-capture sequences for a video game (in the only scene that allows director Peter Segal to flaunt some flair for physical comedy), an opportunistic promoter (Kevin Hart) pounces on the chance to stage the long-delayed rematch.
While the Rocky Balboa vs. Jake LaMotta premise reads like outrageous fan fiction, Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman’s script features only standard-issue redemption and hackneyed old-age gags (although Viagra jokes are conspicuous by their absence, so that’s something).
Both protagonists are waiting for people they’ve wronged to come crawling back to them, whether it’s Henry’s ex-lover (Kim Basinger) or Billy’s illegitimate son (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal). Sadly, the adult support cast is neglected in favour of a tagalong moppet (Camden Gray), who’s allowed to mug insufferably for the camera.
After an endless wait, Stallone and De Niro finally square off but their gazes rarely meet. It’s as if they’re both embarrassingly aware of how they’re tarnishing their reputations for the sake of a few easy laughs.
Rather than getting us on the ropes and landing some telling blows, Grudge Match keeps its distance and tosses meek jabs. Cheap sentimentality can’t disguise the crashing cynicism on display.