Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
December 24, 2013
**1/2 (out of four)
After enough belly flops, a pencil dive looks all right. And that's what "Grudge Match," a generic but decent step up from something like "Escape Plan" or "The Big Wedding," is: The pencil dive of movies, only set in a boxing ring.
During a very dry start, former champion boxer Henry "Razor" Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) works a Pittsburgh factory job like he stepped off the set of "Out of the Furnace." Razor's old rival Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (Robert De Niro) owns a used car dealership and, at the boxing-themed bar he owns, performs stand-up about his victory over his enemy some 30 years ago. He doesn't joke about the time Razor beat him. Each man's loss was his only career defeat.
Thanks to Razor's financial woes, Kid's lingering competitiveness and the persistence of their former promoter's son (Kevin Hart), these old punching bags agree to a long overdue third bout. Great, you're thinking, a rocky opening leads to a "Rocky" rehash, tweaked to sit next to "Last Vegas" and "The Bucket List" in the Older Guys Showing They Can Still Do Stuff section. Thankfully, no. "Grudge Match" is savvier and funnier than expected. During the press conference announcing the fight, few reporters show up, and the ones who do both mock the boxers or express concern for their health. Hart's efforts here and throughout the movie make good use of his usual loudmouth attitude, even if the script forces the character to constantly comment on whiteness ("I just won the cracker lottery!").
Note: By "savvier," I just meant that "Grudge Match" doesn't take itself too seriously. No movie that includes jokes about "Baywatch" and "Webster" and any sincere mention of a phone book can be that savvy. Yet "Grudge Match" also doesn't have any Viagra jokes, and the predictable plot lines involving the woman who got between the guys (Kim Basinger) and the son one never met (Jon Bernthal) hover around fine instead of dipping into awful.
Between the two beaten-up vets, De Niro's got far better comic timing. It's not unwelcome, in a "We should have waited to rent this but whatever" kind of way, to see these two jaw at each other. Naturally, at this age, they still look more comfortable when not bobbing and weaving. Razor's proud of his hobby: turning junk into art. "Grudge Match" doesn't accomplish the same, but it pleasantly avoids the trash.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC