There is something to be admired about Robert De Niro's ability to stay relevant in Hollywood even as the iconic and two-time Oscar-winning actor hit 70-years-old just this year. De Niro, who picked up another Oscar nomination in 2012 for his supporting role in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, With a film career that began in 1964 with an uncredited appearance in Seven Days in May, De Niro may always be most revered for his highly acclaimed performances as Travis Bickle in 1976's Taxi Driver and as boxing champ Jake LaMotta in 1980's Raging Bull.
Has it really come down to this? Is the need to stay relevant at 70 really worth tossing cinematic firecrackers at the treasured memory of an astounding performance in Raging Bull by returning to the boxing ring opposite Sylvester Stallone, who obviously built his entire cinematic career around boxing with the Rocky films, and subjecting audiences to what is nothing short of a godawful exercise in digital wretchedness so completely filled with cliche's and drivel that one can almost feel the lingering presence of post-traumatic stress disorder while laving the theater?
Really? Did this actually look good on paper? Or was the money just so awesome that it was impossible to pass up?
Please. Oh, please tell me there was a reason.
There is simply no question that De Niro remains an immensely gifted actor as evidenced by his ability to take what could have easily been a one-note role and bring it vividly to live in Silver Linings Playbook. It's simply difficult to imagine that there was anything about this project that screamed out other than, perhaps, it being that car wreck that you just can't help staring at as you drive by it even though you know you should.
De Niro is Kid, a one-time prizefighter who hasn't touched the gloves in over thirty years but who managed to parlay his moment in the spotlight into a semi-successful post-boxing career owning a steakhouse and car dealership while occasionally making personal appearances in some semblance of low-level glory. We become privvy rather early on that former rival Razor (Sylvester Stallone) hasn't had nearly as successful a post-boxing life and lives a blue-collar existence in Pittsburgh having been recently laid off from yet another job. There's an obvious air that indicates that these two are far more than simply old-time rivals, a rivalry that gets brought back to life when promoter Dante Slate (Kevin Hart) gets the two to lend their skills to a videogame project. Kid infiltrates Razor's motion-capture session and the two end up in an altercation that goes viral. Seeing an opportunity, Slate gets the two to agree to "Grudgmatch," an old school rematch between the two that is largely based upon a conflict that never really feels real or gains any traction even when the inevitable woman (Kim Basinger) that came between them enters the picture.
Grudge Match benefits ever so slightly from the more entertaining and lighthearted appearances by supporting players like Alan Arkin, who can still toss one-liners better than most comic actors working, and the always dependable supporting player LL Cool J.
I suppose a modest kudo should be served up for the gutsy choice made by co-writers Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman to turn De Niro's Kid into a sort of dominating bad guy devoid of anything resembling a moral core. While they never quite fully commit to the choice, going that direction makes the conflict between Kid and Razor all that more interesting, though in the end it never really goes anywhere other than the inevitable climactic bout that may be one of the worst choreographed action sequences caught on film this year.
Or last year.
Or the year before.
I guess you get what I mean.
Grudge Match is inconsistent in tone, riddled with cliche'd dialogue and blandly developed that the end of this action/comedy is almost jarring in the intensity of the climactic battle that just seems to come out of nowhere. The film is intentionally styled with a 30's - 40's Hollywood action pic vibe, but it simply doesn't work. To his credit, De Niro seems to know that he's landed himself in a cinematic dog here and rarely seems invested, while Stallone is painfully awkward in his self-importance. Had the two actors taken a cue from Arkin and LL Cool J, Grudge Match could have probably been turned into a minimally decent action/comedy. Instead, Grudge Match is the 98-pound weakling destined to get muscled out of the crowded holiday weekend box-office race.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic