Grudge Match is an old-guy sports comedy with a classic rock radio soundtrack and a plot that reads like New Hollywood fan fiction. It traffics in the overtly familiar; Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro’s characters might not be named Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta, but they are, respectively, a working-class Pennsylvanian whose elderly trainer never takes off his hat, and a loudmouth who used his winnings to buy a bar and now bores evening audiences with boxing stories. It’s audience comfort food, a story in which a delinquent dad learns to connect with his grown-up son, a former couple rekindles their romance late in life, and two icons square off in the ring.
Stallone and De Niro star as Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, longtime boxing rivals who are briefly thrown back into the national spotlight because of a YouTube video. Eager to cash in on their newfound viral fame, Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), the son of the manager who swindled Razor out of his winnings, signs the two up for a novelty rematch, which he ludicrously dubs “Grudgement Day.” Training montages, aging jokes, and attempts to make up for past misdeeds ensue.
It’s exactly as clichéd as it sounds. What’s unexpected, however, is the sensitivity and sense of perspective that Grudge Match brings to much of this secondhand material. De Niro’s late-period comic roles are invariably curmudgeonly and high-strung, but he plays The Kid as a self-aware buffoon who traded his dignity for a cheesy theme restaurant and a used car dealership. (Stallone, on the other hand, sticks to his usual principled, sarcastic loner persona.) The portrayal of Billy’s relationship with B.J. (Jon Bernthal), the trainer son he never knew, unexpectedly avoids the customary arc of having the two characters warm up to each other over time. Instead, they like each other immediately, which makes the relationship feel more real than it should, and gives an emotional urgency to its inevitable conflicts.
Significantly, the movie never attempts to portray Grudgement Day as anything other than a publicity stunt. To The Kid and Razor, the fight is meaningful (more because of their age than their rivalry), but to almost everyone else in Grudge Match, it’s a joke; the few reporters who even bother to show up to its press conference ask mocking questions. This has the effect of foregrounding the emotional underpinnings of the match, however hackneyed they may be. It all adds up to a pleasant, albeit very minor, surprise: a movie that never quite rises above its clichés, but which nonetheless tries to invest them with emotional credibility.