Blu-ray Review: Grudge Match

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Grudge Match coasts by, for a while at least, on its lighthearted atmosphere and the energy of a game cast. Aging boxing rivals Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) are called upon to provide motion capture and voiceover work for an upcoming video game. The 60-somethings each won a bout against the other, but Razor retired before they could have another rematch. The two stars each send up their onscreen boxing legacies (Stallone’s Rocky series and De Niro in Raging Bull). Kevin Hart provides frenetic support work as Dante Slate Jr., the son of a deceased promoter. Alan Arkin is an even grumpier old man than the two leads, playing Razor’s ailing trainer, Lightning. And Kim Basinger is on hand as Sally, an awkward love interest; Razor’s one-time true love, but also father to Kid’s child.

Grudge Match 1 (380x253).jpgWhile not the unmitigated disaster its critical consensus and box office performance would suggest, Grudge Match (now available to own on Blu-ray from Warner Bros.) is also not nearly the uproarious comic romp it was conceived as. After a video of their explosively violent motion-capture session goes viral, Razor and Kid are offered a chance to finally have that rematch. As they train and do publicity stunts, jokes are borrowed from a variety of sources (the boxers forget the words to the “Star-Spangled Banner” while singing at an event, a gag that strongly recalls The Naked Gun). Constant references to the Rocky films are sprinkled in (Razor drinks raw eggs, tries to beat up a side of beef, and Razor and Kid’s casino commercial is reminiscent of a similar failed attempt in Rocky II).

Grudge Match 3 (380x253).jpgBesides the tiredness of most of the jokes, Razor and Kid’s motivations for returning to the ring are weak, at best. Kid, reduced to selling used cars and delivering a cheesy standup routine in his restaurant (a la Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull), feels he wasn’t at his best when Razor defeated him. De Niro handily conveys Kid’s restless need to finally prove himself. But Razor has reached an almost Zen-like peace in his life, working in a factory and making little metal sculptures as a hobby. Even when Sally re-enters his life, attempting to talk him out of fighting, Razor is easily able to forgive her for dalliance with Kid. Sure, Lightning needs extra income to pay his nursing home bills (though, as played by Arkin, he hardly seems decrepit enough to need constant nursing). But it’s hard to swallow that Razor would give in and agree to such a spectacle.

Grudge Match feat (380x286).jpgStallone has since revealed that he initially didn’t want the role, only to be convinced by De Niro. He was right to be apprehensive. There’s too much Rocky in Razor, right down to a bad eye that threatens the viability of the big match. Stallone, though he tosses off a few effective zingers, almost seems to wish he was somewhere else.

There are also tonal problems, as if director Peter Segal couldn’t figure out whether he was making a family-oriented or adult-oriented comedy. Kid’s son, now an adult and a father himself, is named B.J. (Jon Bernthal). Those initials become a running gag, but fellatio innuendo involving Kid’s eight-year-old grandson is a little uncomfortable. Hart tries hard to pump some freshness into the whole thing, but as Grudge Match lumbers toward the inevitable big fight, it becomes clear that everyone else is on autopilot. The problem with the fight, besides the implausibility of 70-year-old De Niro and 67-year-old Stallone trading punches, is that it’s treated with a straight face. There’s no more comedy by this point, just an ersatz Rocky finale. It’s nearly impossible to imagine any viewer having a vested emotional interest in the outcome of the so-called “Grudgement Day” bout.

Grudge Match 2 (380x253).jpgAs for Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray, the transfer of Dean Semler’s digital cinematography is attractive. Semler apparently favored a naturalistic look, which results in a few indoor scenes that almost appear to missing a key light. As such, fine detail occasionally gets swallowed up by shadows. But the big fight scene looks fantastic, with every slow-motion blood splatter registering in perfect clarity. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix packs a lot of much-appreciated LFE activity; the rock soundtrack tunes really kick and the boxers’ punches land with deep thuds. Directionality is somewhat limited except during the big concluding fight, during which we get lots of crowd noise from the surrounds.

There’s a decent amount of supplemental material here. The deleted scenes don’t amount to much, but the alternate opening provides a genuinely interesting look at how Stallone and De Niro were “de-aged” for the archival fight footage (Jon Bernthal actually plays De Niro in these segments). Before-and-after demonstrations are incorporated into the alternate opening, which also includes an introduction by director Segal. The two alternate endings are interesting because one of them is actually a far more sensible way to end the big fight. Sadly, Segal’s intro says very little. I would’ve liked him to open up about how they decided how the fight would end.

Grudge Match 4 (380x253).jpgFive featurettes total about a half-hour of material, half of which is contained in “The Bull and The Stallion,” typical EPK fare. More fun are the two Kevin Hart pieces, “In the Ring” and “Unedited.” “Ringside with Tyson and Holyfield” is sort of amusing to see the two former champs attempting to seriously analyze Razor and Kid’s fictional fights from the movie as if they were real. A standard DVD version is included, along with a downloadable digital copy.

Despite its problems, Grudge Match is probably worth a rental for most Stallone and/or De Niro fans (or Kevin Hart fans, for that matter). And a post-credits scene with Tyson and Holyfield hints at what possibilities might have existed if Grudge Match had starred those two actual rivals. Though buried at the very end, it’s the comic highpoint of the film.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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