The surprise in Grudge Match, the not-quite-a-comedy that pits Rocky Balboa against Raging Bull, isn't that it has the chutzpah to posit a universe in which Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro have, since the early '80s, been equally matched rivals. The surprise is in how easily audiences will buy it. For years, De Niro has slumped through godawful comedies where he seems to work just about as hard as a high school coach teaching health class.
A decade and a half of that, and Grudge Match almost makes sense. The greatest of street-tough '70s Noo Yawk film actors has sunk to the level of Stallone, the most ridiculous of that breed. Despite Silver Linings Playbook, De Niro's the one who most seems to need a slot on this fight card — Stallone has three dutifully violent franchises to tend to, and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot is a lot smaller in his rearview than Meet the Fockers is in De Niro's.
An even bigger surprise: Despite the scene where De Niro's retirement-age pugilist farts on his trainer, Grudge Match aspires to be more than some Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau-style dispenser of prostate jokes. Director Peter Segal is aiming for nothing less than the third-best boxing movie these guys have ever starred in. It might be, but that's only a compliment if you favor the flags-and-muscle candy of those hulking Rocky sequels.
Grudge Match, like Rocky Balboa, is drab and plodding as a matter of principle. Its boxers live in Pittsburgh, a city often typecast in the role of Hard Times in America; true to form, Stallone's washed-up fighter works at a factory facing layoffs and squints at the burger he's served in a grimy diner — the patty's no thicker than a shingle.
A fake sportscast dishes the backstory: Back in '82, after they'd each won one title match from the other, Stallone's character chose to retire from boxing rather than face De Niro's in a tie-breaker. The voiceover announces that no one knows why, which means you better steel yourself for some mopey revelations to come — and they drip out slowly, this being a Stallone character. If you always sounded like you just left the dentist, you'd be taciturn, too.
De Niro plays a bar owner across town, a loudmouth who takes to the stage with schtick-y stand-up act based on his fight career. When the two men meet for the first time in years, they lurch into a dumb, improbable brawl. Some whippersnapper uploads the fracas to YouTube — the movie's idea of a joke is that the old-timers have never heard of "viral" videos — and soon a promoter (Kevin Hart) is pushing the two toward the grudge match of the title and a windfall of tens of thousands of dollars.
Cue the usual training montages, complete with Stallone performing his trademark feats of strength, plus much melodrama centered around family and exes, and Alan Arkin turning up as an Alan Arkin type — he's the same foulmouthed salt he played in Stand Up Guys, right down to doing double duty as inspirational speechmaker and comic-relief grotesque. Nimble Arkin handles those shifts better than the film does; Segal's gearbox gets jammed between recession-era sports drama and brainless comedy, especially as Hart hollers pop-culture punch lines like he's the squirrel sidekick in a CGI kiddo flick.
Credit Segal with this, though: He elicits an engaged and engaging performance from De Niro, who's good, even compelling when the dialogue's worth his time. The many passages when it isn't offer the chance to contemplate a curious similarity between these two actors: Each has protected the key instrument of his individual craft while not worrying much about the other. De Niro's face is still wonderfully expressive, its deep lines cinching up with anger or spreading wide with his loose, lively laughter. His body, meanwhile, is subjected to punishing jokes about man-boobs, gassiness, and Jake LaMotta-style bloat.
Stallone, meanwhile, remains ripped, his chest thrust forward like Captain America's shield, although he looks more human than he sometimes has — he's at least back on HO scale. But his face has so pinked as it's settled into slack immobility that his eyes and mouth at times seem to be just holes in meat. He plays the relatable one, the everyday schlub who once was a contender. But what's the point of a movie about an everyman aging whose star has done everything in his power to look like he hasn't?
By the end, we've seen both these joes we're supposed to root for punch out strapping bruisers less than half their age. (De Niro knocks down LL Cool J — twice!) Even crazier, Stallone's training scenes peak with him dragging a tractor-trailer's cab across a junkyard — and you thought The Hobbit was the season's big fantasy picture. The climactic title bout is woozy with blood and sweat and debilitating head injuries, just like the old days. This De Niro and this Stallone may suit each other, but for all the punching and tear-jerking, nothing in here comes close to the excitement of De Niro's younger self having coffee with Pacino in Heat. Now that was a duel.