Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Cinema File #302: "Grudge Match" Review

Early in 2013, stalwart fans of cheesy 90's action cinema (including yours truly) were treated to Escape Plan, a vaguely high concept action romp that just barely proved the continued viability of its two now very wrinkly stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Though it could have been a lot better, it was enough just to see those two old codgers back in action again, side by side punching bad guys in the face and shooting at things long past the point where any realistic high powered machine gun could feasibly carry bullets. Now it seems that Stallone has taken it upon himself to keep the crossover gimmick train going with Grudge Match, a boxing movie co-starring Robert DeNiro no doubt pitched to the studio as Rocky Vs. Raging Bull, because apparently Rambo Vs. Commando was just too awesome to even conceive of. Regrettably, the result is about as bad as you would expect a comedy starring Stallone and DeNiro in any context would be.

Grudge Match follows retired boxers Henry "Razor" Sharp and Billy "The Kid" McDonnen as they rekindle their long simmering professional rivalry and get back in the ring for one last fight to prove once and for all whose better. The movie begins with some of the worst and most unconvincing CGI de-aging effects you'll ever see in a movie, providing the perfect metaphor for a film all about two fading stars desperately clinging to the relevance of their youth. In an action movie, where the requirements for acting are relatively low and forgiving, Stallone's screen presence and the nostalgia he engenders are typically enough to carry him through and distract from the fact that you can only understand every other words he slurs. In comedy, its just getting kind of sad really, which is only compounded by the appearance of DeNiro, whose penchant for starring in misguided comedic roles over the last few years was already sad to begin with.

Maybe I just don't understand boxing movies or their fans, but this subgenre seems particularly played out even in relation to cliched sports movies in general. The thing about Rocky was that it was the quintessential boxing movie, which is great as far as it goes, but also means that unless you've found a new angle on the subject, you don't really need to ever make another one (five sequels notwithstanding). The fact that the two guys are old isn't enough of a leap to make this same old story interesting again, especially when the last Rocky movie covered this same territory better only a few years ago. Its not funny enough to elevate it beyond its tired structure, the drama is haphazardly wedged in and never earned, and by the end, you're just so thankful to finally get to the part the whole movie was built around, and that's the match itself, which as a movie trope has been done to death and couldn't possibly be in anyway surprising.

Before we get there, we have the obligatory training montages and the parts where they both learn what's really important in life, all the things they ignored because of boxing, and can now fully appreciate before going back to boxing. It pans out exactly as you would expect with maybe one or two legitimately funny moments here and there (pretty much entirely the province of the always great Alan Arkin), but there's just so much bleh in between that its just not worth it to try and find the few bright spots. Even moments that might have been funny are ruined by the pacing of the jokes, which tends to leave spaces in between lines that are just too long, as if the actors are waiting for their prompt, or most of the dialogue was improvised without the kind of quickfire wit that makes that style (sometimes) fun to watch. Whether its in the performances or the editing, something just feels off about the whole movie, and more often than not it is to the detriment of the comedy.

Come to think of it, had Grudge Match been more of a straight drama, or even a direct crossover of its stars' famous boxing films rather than a pastiche of one, it almost certainly would have been a lot better. Beyond the fact that neither of these two leading actors are very funny anymore (if they ever were), the kind of feel good pathos that this kind of movie is designed to foster seems much more at home with melodrama than with comedy. Its one of the few genres of film that not only can take itself too seriously, but really must if it is to succeed. The Underdog Fighter exists to give us hope and provide a fantasy of the everyman overcoming insurmountable odds and demonstrating the indomitable will of the human spirit. There really isn't that much room for self-reflection and satire. This is perhaps Grudge Match's biggest failure, not just that its a bad movie, but that its a bad boxing movie, because it gives me no real reason to care about whether either one of these schmucks actually beats the other one.

I want to compare this movie to Last Vegas, another 2013 comedy about old guys doing young people things that also happens to feature DeNiro. I want to say that at worst, both films are pleasantly inoffensive and forgettable. The problem is that Grudge Match crosses a line from just not very good to quite obviously bad, unable to really work as a comedy or as a sports movie. Its not the worst movie of all time or even the worst movie of the year it premiered, or even bad enough to make any long running list of terrible films, but its bad enough that were it not for my commitment to see the whole movie in order to review it, I probably would have walked out. Again, I don't have the same level of appreciation for sports movies generally or boxing movies in particular as some, so I can't speak to whether the last act is enough to excuse the first two for people who usually like this sort of thing. Even then I doubt even boxing movie aficionados will be able to find much to love about this last bout.
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