Holiday week release schedules are about counterprogramming – hit your rivals where they ain’t. “They’re releasing an animated movie? Yes, well, we’re putting out an action flick.” “Hey, cool, that’s when we’re releasing our rom-com with that adorable actress who is actually hell on wheels behind the scenes.” The key is that every demographic is represented by at least one of the movies opening in wide release, and rarely is one demo targeted with such focus by more than one movie. But look at that, the boxing comedy “Grudge Match” and “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” are opening within a week of each other, and are vying for the same audience. (Yes, one skews older, but not that much older.) This is like the makers of “Kick-Ass” deciding to open against a Marvel movie. Who would do that?
And yet, Warners might be crazy like a fox here. The older demographics may not be sexy, but they draw well, and if my colleague Jason Zingale’s assessment of “Anchorman 2” is any indication, the movies are a draw in terms of quality. “Grudge Match” is funny, at times explosively so, but also uneven and flawed. They even do something that previously seemed impossible: they use Alan Arkin too much. Well, maybe not too much, but they don’t use him appropriately.
Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen (Robert De Niro) were both light heavyweight contenders from Pittsburgh who couldn’t stand each other. They fought twice, with each knocking out the other (their only losses). Before they could schedule a third match to settle the score, Razor retired from boxing, much to the Kid’s dismay. Thirty years later, Dante (Kevin Hart), the son of Razor’s former promoter, convinces him to perform in motion capture gear for a video game that will feature him and the Kid. Against Razor’s wishes, the Kid shows up at the same time. The two scuffle, the video of the scuffle goes viral, and suddenly there is a demand for the two to have their long-overdue grudge match. Between Razor’s money issues and the Kid’s lust for victory, they agree, but there are several things complicating the fight besides their age, namely the woman they once shared (Kim Basinger) and her son B.J. (Jon Bernthal), who only recently discovered whom his father was.
This is a fits-and-spurts kind of movie, where they deliver a bunch of laughs, then take five to 10 minutes to set up the dramatic elements, then do some more jokes, and so on. Both moods have moments that work (at the end of the skydiving scene, Arkin delivers a line so incredibly un-PC that it had me gasping for air) and moments that don’t (Razor has a secret – one that, after an incident in the second act, would have gotten him thrown in jail). This movie also sets the record for most flagrant product placements. Even the ones that are supposed to be subtle (ahem, Buffalo Trace bourbon) are anything but.
Then again, this is a broad comedy with a capital B, and with director Peter Segal (the better-than-expected “The Longest Yard”) at the helm, it’s a given that subtlety is not a priority, particularly when it came to the multiple “Rocky” references. And that’s fine, really; this movie knows what it is, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. There are moments that are beneath De Niro and Arkin’s talents, sure, (Arkin’s performance as a horny old man in “Little Miss Sunshine” is far superior), but the movie’s better because they’re in it.
“Grudge Match” is the kind of movie that checks a lot of boxes on an imaginary list of qualities that producers want when looking for their next hit. That, combined with the number of companies who helped finance the film through product placement, made this movie a no-brainer. It is called the movie business, after all.