Monday, December 30, 2013

In Theaters: GRUDGE MATCH (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Peter Segal.  Written by Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman.  Cast: Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Jon Bernthal, LL Cool J, Anthony Anderson, Paul Ben-Victor, Barry Primus, Camden Grey, Griff Furst, Jim Lampley, Michael Buffer. (PG-13, 114 mins)

GRUDGE MATCH caps off a busy 2013 for stars Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, but it's too bad they couldn't have teamed up on a more inspired project.  They worked together before, on 1997's underappreciated COP LAND, a film that's just gotten better over the years, but this finds them squarely in a safe, predictable, "geriatrics behaving badly" comedy that gets bogged down with forced, feel-good blandness and a plethora of jokes that fall flat due to lack of humor or just bad timing on the part of the actors.  And, my God, the montages!  "What Makes a Good Man" and "How You Like Me Now?" by The Heavy?  Check.  "Boom Boom" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters?  Check.  "Here I Come," by The Roots?  Check.  And sorry, but there's no excuse for a boxing movie with De Niro and Stallone to contain a montage set to Phillip Phillips' "Gone Gone Gone."  None.  Well, I guess it could be worse.  They could've used "Home."

30 years ago, two rival light heavyweights, Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro) and Henry "Razor" Sharp (Stallone) were about to square off in their third fight when Razor abruptly backed out and disappeared from public view and The Kid retired from boxing to open a bar and car dealership. When an HBO documentary sparks renewed interest in their story, fast-talking promoter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), the son of the crooked manager who screwed the two fighters over back in the day, talks them into doing some motion capture work for a boxing video game.  Still bitter enemies, the pair get into a brawl in the studio and the resulting footage goes viral.  Before long, the long-postponed title fight--now called Grudgement Day--is back on as Razor recruits his old trainer Lightning (Alan Arkin) from the nursing home, and The Kid, after being turned down by his now-retired protégé (LL Cool J), teams up with B.J. (Jon Bernthal), the son he never knew, who's grown up to be a high-school football coach.  The Kid fathered B.J. with Sally (Kim Basinger), who was Razor's girlfriend, but had a brief fling with the Kid while Razor was away training.  That's the source of the animosity, and it's something Razor's never been able to put behind him.

Oh, but there's more drama:  The Kid and B.J. finally get a chance to bond as father and son after 30 years (De Niro seems to be in physical pain uttering the line "I need you in my corner," and just as B.J.'s about to bail on him, the Kid pulls out a scrapbook filled with old photos of B.J.'s high school and college football days, showing that he's been with him all along!), and The Kid finds out he's got a grandson, Trey (Camden Gray).  They've only now connected but the script by Tim Kelleher (FIRST KID) and Rodney Rothman (a former writer for THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN) is so lazy that there's one scene where B.J. makes an off-the-cuff remark about doing something "like you used to show me."  Wait a minute...didn't they just meet for the first time?  There are some genuinely funny bits in the early going, and some winking nods to the past that fans will find amusing (Stallone repeats the "drinking raw eggs" bit from ROCKY, but worries about the cholesterol), but then the laughs start to get cheap, repetitive, and too easy, like Arkin, cast radically against type as "Alan Arkin," talking about far-east hookers and ping-pong balls and telling Razor he should be "getting some snapper" and "doing the bone dance" with Sally, fulfilling the mandatory "old guy being pervy" requirement as set forth by the Burgess Meredith Amendment.  Stallone, whose Razor is the perpetual underdog against the boorish Kid, gets a chance to do some serious acting and handles it nicely despite the hackneyed lines he's forced to read.  He's trying his best, but the main problem is that he's played this part and a similar enough (on his end, at least) scenario before in 2006's surprisingly solid ROCKY BALBOA.  He does the sad sack loner bit effectively, but does the script have to make him so befuddled and out of touch?  There's a running gag about Lightning being angry that Razor doesn't have a TV, but for a guy who, sure, is a bit of a loner, but works in the everyday world and isn't a complete hermit, is there any reason other than a cheap laugh for how Razor possibly couldn't understand how caller ID works?  How has he never heard of it before 2013?  He understands video games and iPads, but caller ID is just way over his head?

There's also too much time spent on The Kid coming to the realization that he's been a total dick, which results in one of the most nonsensical sequences in any film this year.  Wishing to bond with Trey (I know it's wrong to pick on child actors, but this kid is unbearable), he asks B.J. if he can take him out to dinner and a movie.  Using a 12-pack of beer as a car seat, The Kid instead takes Trey to his bar, leaving him in the care of his bartender buddy Joey (Barry Primus) while he hooks up with a hot young fan.  Later, a tired Trey finds the 12-pack in The Kid's office and takes it outside to sit in the driver's seat of his grandfather's SUV, where he finds the keys, starts the SUV, and shifts it into gear.  Cue The Kid and the hottie popping up from the cargo space of the SUV as it rolls into the street and Trey can't reach the brake.  OK, I have several questions about this comedic set piece:  1) where's the humor?  2)  how did The Kid and the girl not hear him open the car door, plop the heavy 12-pack down, climb in, grab the jingling keys, put the keys in the ignition, start the SUV, and shift it into gear?  3) Why, before getting laid in the cargo space of the SUV, would The Kid feel the need to take the time to remove the 12-pack from the seat and walk it all the way into his office inside the bar when he would just need to bring it back out again to get Trey home?  It's not like it was obstructing the path to the cargo space. None of this scene makes any sense at all, and it's all crammed into place to get Trey in the driver's seat of the vehicle.  And the less said about the forced, labored, beat-to-death gag about B.J.'s initials, using the term "butterscotch jellybeans" as a euphemism for blowjobs, and The Kid advising his grandson that "not all girls like butterscotch jellybeans," the better.

Naturally, director Peter Segal (TOMMY BOY, 50 FIRST DATES) tries to turn it into a feel-good man-weepie by the end, but the emotion and the character arcs are so perfunctory that it doesn't feel earned.  Pitting RAGING BULL against ROCKY could've been some late-career comedy gold for these two screen legends, but aside from some effort put forth by Stallone, who's written enough solid screenplays to know how shitty this one is, no one really cares.  De Niro coasts by on the expected De Niro schtick and mannerisms, though on a couple of occasions, he tries so hard to sell a gag that it's actually uncomfortable to watch (there's one excruciating bit where he's emphatically and repeatedly listing three options in a different order and it lands with such a thud that I'm shocked it made the final cut).  Arkin is a national treasure, but even his patented grouchy curmudgeon act is feeling pretty spent.  He gets some laughs and his banter with Hart isn't bad, but you've seen it all before.  GRUDGE MATCH is hardly the worst film for either of its iconic headliners (it's not even the worst De Niro film of 2013--that would be THE BIG WEDDING), and there's enough laughs that it's not a complete waste of time for completists, but it's among their most instantly forgettable, especially with the run Stallone's been on lately with the hugely entertaining EXPENDABLES franchise, BULLET TO THE HEAD, and ESCAPE PLAN.

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