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Grudge Match (2013)

CRUMBLIES… 4 crumblies

God, I was pissed off. It’d been one of those days when the mobility scooter farted and died, the staff were organising games by the lake, and Simpering Sue had control of the TV room. Eight long hours had passed. She’d ignored all my recommendations, made me sit through Ruth & Alex, and the temp chef doled out food so bland I wasn’t sure it was on my tongue. Gaaaaah! And then – sweet Lord above – Simpering Sue choked on her delicate lace handkerchief and had to go for a lie down. Know what I did? Hunted through the DVD cupboard until something about angry old men with fists of steel popped up. Oh yes – Stallone vs De Niro in Grudge Match. Glove up, baby.

This film is the elixir of Grandpa rage. Old, angry men with a boxing history arrive in the present day pissed to the bone with each other. For they were famous; they had terrific matches in the past; oh, and Stallone retired because De Niro bedded his girl, the profoundly unageing and crikey I nearly forgot the woes of my day Kim Basinger. She’s the voice of sanity and reason through all the shouting, punching and being old…

So – Sylvester Stallone is Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp and, whisper it, gives a terrific performance. Layered, funny, bittersweet and almost fearful of facing down the past. Robert De Niro is Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen, a ton less sympathetic and yet…softens through a story that isn’t particularly full of sentiment. They are both trapped in their blue-collar worlds, the boxing rivalry not quite a distant memory. The Kid does sort-of stand-up with an air of pay-me; Razor needs money to keep his old coach in his care home (Alan Arkin giving it low-key rude as Louis ‘Lightning’ Conlon). Both need the cash when Kevin Hart turns up in cracking form as Dante Slate Jr, son of their old promoter and dabbling in the game himself. Luck strikes: Hart gets the old grumps to support a computer game, they lose their rags and tear at each other in big green digitization outfits (or something – they look stupid, anyway). This goes viral, and they’re a commodity again…

And so emerges the idea of a Grudge Match some thirty years after their last battle in the ring. It’s a time to rip open old wounds and pour rage in to the bone. Which happens, but with a ton of promotion-based embarrassment along the way – they each demo appalling acting in adverts and there’s some interesting sky-diving…

Which is all well and good, but the real story is at character level as they struggle to train back to some kind of form. We’re laughing at the old here, mostly at the vanity of old movie stars, but Stallone and De Niro come out teeth snarling. Basinger had a son; the son has a son; so De Niro has to reconcile with the life unlived. Stallone as well has to find his way through the emotions and the years that kept Basinger out of his head. This stuff, the meat of the film, is where the real skill comes through from the leads: gruff men leading gruff men’s lives catch at you as you watch. For old Jack here, delighting in the tart one-liners and the mutual pruning of dignity, Grudge Match proves a proper, masculine space to let go and laugh. And, you know, let out a bit of life’s sadness.

And then the match itself appears on the horizon. It doesn’t disappoint, albeit the balance of clips at the start of the film (Rocky and Raging Bull at their prettiest) underlines the cruelty of watching old men give it some in the final reel. It looks for a while that the match itself might be fudged…but, no, the film makes up its mind.

Bad mood? Testosterone pouring through your heart? Slap on Grudge Match. It can be a tad manipulative in places, and the magic double-act of Hart and Arkin is far too thin on the ground, but it has the air of old-man-catharsis about it.

All your regrets lost in a punch.

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