LOS ANGELES — Sylvester Stallone returns to the well of fan fiction by teaming with his onetime iconic-onscreen-pugilist rival, Robert De Niro, in “Grudge Match.” Essentially recasting “Grumpy Old Men” with the senescent specters of Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta, the result is sporadically amusing, with some chuckles, sight gags and crowd-pleasing supporting turns from Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart. Yet it’s all so overcooked that it defeats its own purpose.
Hollywood frequently rummaging through its creative dumpster for never-ending sequels and remakes, but the latter-day careers of Stallone and De Niro are special cases indeed, with the two stars — 67 and 70, respectively — essaying a series of roles that are not only informed by, but practically senseless without, knowledge of their filmographies. This tendency toward lazily coasting on familiarity hits a pinnacle for both in “Grudge Match,” where the stunt casting is far funnier in theory than in execution.
As a Jim Lampley-narrated mini-documentary informs us at the outset, Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) and Billy “the Kid” McDonnen (De Niro) were once the fiercest rivals in boxing, with McDonnen beating Sharp in a classic bout, and Sharp taking the spoils against an out-of-shape McDonnen in the rematch. A third, score-settling grudge match was scheduled to take place 30 years ago, but Sharp abruptly retired from boxing shortly before the opening bell.
Since then, the soft-spoken Sharp has retreated into life as a foundry-floor factotum in the scrappier outskirts of Pittsburgh, while the peacocking McDonnen has parlayed his waning fame into a chain of steakhouses and car dealerships. In need of money to keep his aging trainer (Arkin) in a nursing home, Sharp agrees to throw some punches in a motion-capture suit for a videogame, leading to a confrontation with the similarly green-suited McDonnen in the studio. A ludicrous brawl breaks out between the two, and camera-phone footage of the punch-up goes viral.