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January 2, 2014
‘Grudge Match’ makes up for its flaws and adds up to a solid knock-out

The thing about sports movies is you’re supposed to root for the hero. It makes it easy to choose sides.

“Grudge Match” does a good job of making it hard by making its opponents both pretty fleshed out and sympathetic characters.

Thirty years after bowing out of professional boxing, Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) is a grunt in the same blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood he came from before hitting it big in the ring. On the other side of town, the opponent he left at the alter, so to speak, when retiring, Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) has been living comfortably, since leaving boxing, off of endorsements, a car dealership and a boxing-themed restaurant.

The divergent lives they’ve been leading collide again when Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), the son of their old promoter, convinces them to throw some motion-captured punches for a video game.

The video game punches turn disastrously real, but the videos of the brawl quickly go viral online, and Slate begins trying to convince the old boxers to get back in the ring one last time for the fight that never happened.

Razor drags his old trainer, Louis “Lightening” Conlon (Alan Arkin), out from a nursing home, while Kid meets and convinces the son he never met, B.J. (Jon Bernthal), to get him back in fighting shape. Meanwhile, old wounds over B.J.’s mother, Sally (Kim Basinger) — and Razor’s old flame — are reopened, and social media ignites an audience hungry for blood.

This film’s biggest strength is not getting two cinematic boxing legends back in the ring for an imagined bout between Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and De Niro’s Jake La Motta, although that’s clearly fun for the actors and audience alike. No, the writing is actually the star here—there’s a little fat in some of the “meaningful conversations,” but by and large it’s tight and sharp for laugh-out-loud moments, the kind straight-up comedies wish they had. Stallone and De Niro trade barbs, but Hart has some of the funniest lines, and some of his best exchanges are with Arkin.

All the heart of a sports movie is here, too, especially in the shifting relationship of Razor and Kid in and out of the ring. Each character was built up enough that, even though you acknowledged Kid was kind of a jerk and Razor just needed to let things go, you—or at least I—had a hard time rooting for one or the other outright. The ending is unexpectedly but thankfully satisfying, too.

If you find boxing interesting, you’ll probably like this movie. If you like stories about old guys still getting it done, you’ll probably like this movie. I’m not even sort of in the target demographic in terms of age, gender or background, and I liked this movie.

True, this probably won’t go down as a cinematic staple among boxing movies, nor will it likely become a comedic staple. It definitely has some problems. But in the end, the rest of the movie makes up for its flaws, adding up to a solid hit.

Grade: B+

Rated: PG-13

Time: 113 minutes

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