‘Grudge Match’: No punch

December 24, 2013

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A few years back, a practice known as “bum fights” – in which young adults would pay homeless men to brawl with each other, then post videos on the Internet – shocked sentient adults for its cruelty, callousness and what it said about the breakdown of the social contract.

Now, of course, we elect Tea Party legislators to promote the same sort of agenda.

Or, in the case of Hollywood, we pay millions to retirement-age movie stars to strip down and fight each other and call that entertainment – in this case, “Grudge Match,” a limp comedy with half a heart starring Robert De Niro (70) and Sylvester Stallone (67).

Seriously: Who wants to watch either of these guys, stripped to the waist and working up a sweat? Sure, Stallone looks pretty fit for his age – or leathery, depending on your take. De Niro, too, isn’t alarmingly out of shape – but still, the flesh doesn’t lie when it comes to age, particularly in these circumstances.

But that’s just the aesthetics of what must have seemed like an irresistible pitch: “Hey, we’ll put Rocky Balboa in the ring with Jake LaMotta.” Except, of course, that their prime in those roles was 30-plus years ago.

Unfortunately, the script for this film is never sharp or savvy enough to counteract both the ick factor – two grandfathers beating each other up in boxing trunks – and just the simple lackluster quality of it all.

But then Peter Segal is a journeyman director, responsible for several Adam Sandler films (itself reason enough to lift his DGA card). Writers Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman have written such stellar fare as “First Kid” and “Two and a Half Men.” Why would you expect more?

Call it the supporting-actor syndrome. You watch the trailers for this movie and there are Kevin Hart and Alan Arkin, two comic scene-stealers of prodigious talent doing exactly that. There’s no indication that Hart will disappear for most of the middle of the film and not return until almost the end. Which, in fact, happens.

Even then, what Hart is given to do in the film’s last half amounts to a series of grimacing reaction shots. Which are still funnier than any of the hearing-aid jokes Arkin is forced to put across.

Stallone and De Niro play Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, formerly the pride of Pittsburgh in the 1980s, when they were light heavyweights battling for the crown. They split a pair of allegedly epic battles – and then Sharp walked away from fighting before they could square off for the third and deciding fight.

Why? Well, let’s just say he’s got a grudge against De Niro for virtually the same reason De Niro had a grudge against Michael Douglas in this year’s “Last Vegas”: doggin’ the man’s woman back in the day.

There’s a subplot involving that woman – played by the still-lovely Kim Basinger – and the son she had (Jon Bernthal), who winds up as the Kid’s trainer for the rematch that springs up after – well, never mind. Let’s just say that everything these guys touch in this film goes viral, until they’re squaring off in front of a huge arena full of people, as well as a big pay-per-view audience.

A couple of other notes: The early scenes – specifically the footage of their early fights – uses computers to paint the actors’ younger faces on other actors’ bodies in an unconvincing way that makes them look like videogame avatars. Is anybody buying this?

Meanwhile, is anyone else tired of Pittsburgh (and New Orleans) as the current default setting for movies? Obviously, producers are going to go where they get the biggest tax incentive. But 100 years from now, cinephiles are going to think that these two cities were the center of American culture in the early 21st century.

“Grudge Match” is flat, unfunny stuff. Watching these two guys flail at each other in the ring feels more like punishment than entertainment.

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