Having finally sated ’80s action buffs with an Arnold Schwarzenegger co-starring vehicle (this year’s better-than-it-had-to-be “Escape Plan”), Sylvester Stallone returns to the well of fan fiction by teaming with his onetime iconic-onscreen-pugilist rival, Robert De Niro, in “Grudge Match.” Essentially recasting “Grumpy Old Men” with the senescent specters of Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta, the result is sporadically amusing, with some chucklesome sight gags and crowdpleasing supporting turns from Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, yet it’s all so overcooked that it defeats its own purpose. This Warner Bros. release should land some punches, though not a knockout blow, in the Christmas B.O. frame.
In his 2011 book “Retromania,” British music critic Simon Reynolds lamented pop’s Internet Age obsession with nostalgia for the very recent past, noting that in modern culture, “history must have a dustbin, or else history will be a dustbin.” Hollywood is hardly a stranger to this dilemma, frequently rummaging through its own creative dumpster for neverending sequels and remakes, but the latter-day careers of Stallone and De Niro are special cases indeed, with the two stars – 67 and 70, respectively – essaying a series of roles that are not only informed by, but practically senseless without, knowledge of their filmographies. This tendency toward lazily coasting on familiarity hits a pinnacle for both in “Grudge Match,” where the meta-stunt casting is far funnier in theory than in execution.
As a Jim Lampley-narrated mini-docu informs us at the outset, Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “the Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) were once the fiercest rivals in boxing, with McDonnen beating Sharp in a classic bout, and Sharp taking the spoils against an out-of-shape McDonnen in the rematch. A third, score-settling grudge match was scheduled to take place 30 years ago, but Sharp abruptly retired from boxing shortly before the opening bell.
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Since then, the soft-spoken Sharp has retreated into life as a foundry-floor factotum in the scrappier outskirts of Pittsburgh, while the peacocking McDonnen has parlayed his waning fame into a chain of steakhouses and car dealerships. In need of money to keep his aging trainer (Arkin) in a nursing home, Sharp agrees to throw some punches in a motion-capture suit for a videogame, leading to a confrontation with the similarly green-suited McDonnen in the studio. A ludicrous brawl breaks out between the two, and camera-phone footage of the punch-up goes viral.
Sensing an opportunity, fast-talking aspiring fight promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Hart) convinces the two paunchy punchers to finally reschedule their “Grudgement Day” bout, a televised spectacle that falls somewhere between “Celebrity Boxing” and Ali vs. Inoki on the dignity scale.
Ostentatious callbacks to “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” take the form of Stallone quaffing raw eggs and strolling through a meat locker, while DeNiro performs a chintzy nightclub comedy act. MPAA concerns likely kiboshed a reprisal of “Bull’s” fabled “You fuck my wife?” exchange, though it wouldn’t have taken much to shoehorn it in. As it turns out, Sharp’s abrupt retirement was sparked by McDonnen’s dalliances with his then-girlfriend (Kim Basinger), who abruptly reappears on the scene three decades later precisely as McDonnen’s estranged son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal), emerges to connect with his old man, quickly becoming his trainer.
The rest of the film (directed by Peter Segal from a script by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman) ambles forward with a series of training montages interrupted by old-man-falls-down slapstick interrupted by sappy drama, with hit-and-miss setpieces occasionally compensating for the pic’s dreary lack of narrative propulsion. Considering how much of “Rocky V” and “Rocky Balboa” focused on the inherent sadness of an aged fighter enduring yet more punishment, “Grudge Match” is quite glib about the potentially fatal fight at its center, while it rarely passes up an opportunity to slather on pathos elsewhere via a cherubic little kid (Camden Gray) and images of laid-off industrial workers.
Compared with De Niro’s shticky role in this year’s “The Family” — in which his Jersey mobster character actually attends a screening of “Goodfellas” — the actor has a few moments of spark playing the more unsavory of the two leads, while Stallone mostly muddles through. (Both men, it must be said, are in quite impressive shape by the film’s final reel.) Arkin and Hart strike the same ornery-old-cuss/loudmouthed-little-man notes they’ve hit a dozen times before, though they’re good enough for quick laughs, and Hart’s end-credits attempt to stage yet another retirement-age grudge match proves the funniest moment in the whole endeavor.
Technical contributions are largely workmanlike, although the climactic battle is sloppily staged, and there are several shots in which Stallone’s face seems to be lit from an entirely different source as the rest of the scene, perhaps suggesting some rushed CG touch-ups in post.