This is the time of year when studios bid for Academy Awards, so a film with three Oscar-winning actors and one Oscar nominee shouldn’t surprise anyone. That it’s a comedy about two boxers settling a 30-year-old score may be startling. The biggest shock of all is that “Grudge Match” isn’t bad.
Formulaic, yes. Settled with as many reconciliations and promises of happiness as “A Christmas Carol,” absolutely. But a familiar pleasure, nonetheless.
You can tell that someone, presumably director Peter Segal or writers Tim Kelleher and Randy Rothman, sold this to a financier as “Rocky fights Raging Bull, 30 years later.”
Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) works at a Pittsburgh steel plant that’s about to lay him off. Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) owns a used car lot and a restaurant in the same city, but he’s also alone.
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They were light-heavyweight champs in the early 1980s, each winning a bout from the other, but Sharp retired before a decisive third bout could be held. Why? Sally, the love of his life (Kim Basinger) had drifted away from the inattentive Razor and into the arms of the Kid. Their one-night stand produced a son (Jon Bernthal) the Kid has never seen.
Now promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) wants to pay off his debts by arranging a match between the 60-something enemies. After they repeatedly duke it out in private, inadvertently producing videos that go viral, 18,000 Pittsburghers turn out to see the public bout.
You probably don’t need to be told that the Kid’s son and grandson will wind up in his corner, or that Sally will end up behind the Razor. You also can guess that the Razor’s former trainer, a trash-talking geezer in a wheelchair (Alan Arkin), will come out of retirement.
In fact, you can probably guess everything, except a way in which both boxers can come away from the final confrontation as winners. (We feel sentimental about both, so we don’t want either to be defeated.)
But so what? The lines contain a fair proportion of laughs, and Segal doesn’t let the pace drag. The glib, snappy Hart provides spark, bouncing lines off the sardonic Arkin. And Stallone, who has rarely tapped into deeper emotions over a 40-year career, holds his own with De Niro: Stallone underplays, De Niro slightly overplays (which suits his blustery character), and they strike a satisfying balance.
In-jokes may please boxing and movie aficionados. Razor walks through a meat plant, eying sides of beef as potential punching bags, the way Rocky Balboa did; the Kid takes part in a goofy nightclub act, as Jake LaMotta did in “Raging Bull.”
My favorite gag? Impressionist Rich Little supplies the voice of Howard Cosell in “footage” from the the first Sharp-McDonnen fight in 1982, hollering, “Down goes Razor! Down goes Razor!” Muhammad Ali fans will know why that’s funny.