RATING: 1.5 stars (out of 4)
As long as Sylvester Stallone lives, he will continue to make Rocky movies. It’s just a fact, and complaining about it is like being bothered by Miley Cyrus for sticking her tongue out or zombies for wanting to eat brains. It’s just a law of nature, and the sooner you come to accept it and work with it, the sooner you will find peace in life.
The world can always use another Rocky movie — I’m personally hoping for a Rocky VII in which he throws down against an alien robot — but if they continue to be as awful as Grudge Match, Stallone will not be able to round up the budget for theatrical spectacles, and will be forced to make future Rockys as street corner puppet shows.
The concept for Grudge Match, though strained and stupid even for a comedy, had at least half a chance of being worth watching, at least to gawk at. In one corner is the imitation crab meat version of Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, and in the other is Robert de Niro as Diet Jake LaMotta, the Bull That Once Raged But is Now Out to Pasture. Liver spots, bulging guts and wrinkles or not, it’s impossible to be a fan of classic boxing films and not be interested in seeing Stallone and De Niro trade futile, lethargic punches.
It’s the promise of the final bout that lugs the deadweight story through the first 100-minute, sputtering tractor pull. Stallone and De Niro play the two top light heavyweights of the 1980s who traded championship belts in their first two matchups. They’re cajoled by public curiosity and financial/egotistical need to waddle back into the ring one last time. No matter how bleak things get, you’ve always got that hope of the final battle to cling to that might wipe the pain away; in the manner of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla or a family barbecue.
Spoiler alert: The 10-minute throwdown at the end is a spoiler itself, so offensively terrible that it makes you wistful for earlier, less painful moments of training montages, butchered one-liners and eyeball-burning romantic scenes between Stallone and Hordak lookalike Kim Basinger. Stallone, though fit, is plastic and stiff. DeNiro is pudgy, unbelievable, and halfhearted. Alan Arkin–playing Stallone’s smarmy trainer–is the only geezer who emerges unscathed from the disaster, but even he seems pained and miserable.
Did you like Stallone’s training montages and triumphs in the Rocky movies? Do you look back fondly on De Niro’s rage-filled, Oscar-winning bombast as LaMotta in Raging Bull? If you choose to suffer through Grudge Match, prefer to have those memories ruined for you in the way walking in on your parents doing it sullied your childhood innocence. The film is so desperate for laughs that it wallows in self mockery, and it takes things far beyond the point of humor, straight into sadness.
I walked away from the movie feeling almost physically wounded. “Never again,” one of the fighters says after the sordid affair as it mercifully lurched to its end. It’s all you can do to nod, affixing your eyes to the floor in shame.
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Kevin Hart and Jon Bernthal. Written by Doug Ellin, Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman. Directed by Peter Segal. 113 minutes. Rated PG-13.