Boxing has provided us with an abundance of great cinema, with stand outs such as Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter, but there are perhaps none better than Raging Bull, starring Robert De Niro and Rocky, with Sylvester Stallone at the centre of the squared circle. Surely putting the two together would work…maybe about twenty years ago. In steps director Peter Segal to present ‘Grudge Match’, pitting Jake LaMotta toe to toe with Balboa, albeit with new personas and back stories. Stallone is Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp and De Niro is Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen, a couple of Pittsburgh bruisers who had a simmering rivalry thirty years in the past. With one win apiece all those years ago, a decider was imminent but an abrupt retirement from Sharp cut their trilogy short. When a pushy promoter gets in their faces waving wads of cash around, the dollar signs soon appear in the baggy eyes of the adversaries and a final fight is announced to end the bitter feud once and for all.
Like the characters they’re portraying, it’s difficult to imagine why these two admirable pensioners would put themselves through the turmoil at their age. The narrative is chockfull of jokes about Razor and The Kid being past it, over-the-hill, in it for the money but as the sparse material is stretched out, the lines fade between them and the actors. The opening scenes showing flashbacks to their glory days looks like a crudely rendered video game, and sections that require any strenuous activity are padded out with filler and montage, shamelessly harking back to the Rocky franchise. In fairness, the acting away from the ring isn’t too bad as Sly and Bob bounce off one another rather well despite a lacklustre script.
The family subplots are rather forced, with McDonnen’s father/son dynamic with Jon Bernthal’s BJ providing a few laughs, as does Razor’s friendship with his cantankerous trainer ‘Lightning’ Conlon, played comfortably by Alan Arkin who brings some much needed class to proceedings. These pleasant distractions give sparse entertainment and then Kevin Hart comes back to ruin it all again with his one-note overdone performance as Kevin Hart, and the Kim Basinger love triangle with the two brawlers fails to live up to much. Ultimately though, it could have been worse. The paint-by-numbers plot flows along as you would expect building to an inevitable end battle which is easy to cheer for if you’ve decided whose corner you’re in by that point. For me, it always has to be De Niro. It winds up similar to your favourite old pair of trainers. Comfortable, familiar and worn out. You’ll throw them on to try and remember the good times but they’ve definitely seen better days.
Of late we’ve witnessed a resurgence of beloved veterans going back to cinema, with Michael Douglas returning to work after a brush with death, action heroes such as Sly and Arnie reliving past glories with varying success, and Robert De Niro attaching himself to any film that will have him. The idea of throwing four old dogs together and sending them to Sin City seems easy and rather unoriginal, many labelling the project as the ‘OAP Hangover’ but what is truly amazing is that despite the career lengths of the stars, none of them have ever shared the screen together previously. Director John Turteltaub presents Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro and Kevin Kline as the Flatbush Four, a group of childhood pals who reunite for a bachelor party over fifty years past their prime. Have the gang of respected actors pulled their resources for the ‘legendary’ trip the poster tagline suggests, or will they wish they had stayed at home with the pipe and slippers?
Despite the plot following the expected path of booze, gambling and girls, each of the characters is given a sturdy back-story. The individual arcs lead them into the initial meeting at the airport and intertwine to find a sentimental conclusion. Sam (Kline) is in a marriage which has lost its spark, Archie (Freeman) wants to escape the overbearing care of his son after a mild stroke, Billy (Douglas) is the stag refusing to give in to old age, and Paddy (De Niro) is the most reluctant of the clan to go, still in mourning after the passing of his wife. These deeper, yet still typical, aspects of the story at least give the actors something to get their false teeth into amongst the x-rated ice sculptures and wet t-shirt contests.
The ‘getting old’ narrative offers consistent jokes and witty one liners in the first half of the film, and the mock mafia skit they rustle up is a highlight. Once the Scotch sets in midway, events often take a turn towards the ridiculous yet the experienced cast somehow manage to get away with it. Its clear that they’ve had a lot of fun making it and the chemistry between the friends work, and although none of them really stand out alone, they all manage to hold their own. I could have benefited from one or two more scenes with all four characters together because the camaraderie was so entertaining. Perhaps a lengthier section with them sitting around a casino table reminiscing over times gone by could have been nice? Instead the dialogue was kept rather lightweight and the party scenes were a little too heavy, more reminiscent of geriatric Spring Breakers than the aforementioned Hangover. A few frames tread the line of slightly uneasy viewing as the pensioners grow old disgracefully, ogling at the bikini clad youngsters.
‘Last Vegas’ is far from the disaster that many thought it would be, and surprisingly has more beneath the surface than the first glance would give it credit for. A tender observation of men reaching the autumn of their lives, offering up one or two touching moments as well as the cheap laughs. In the hands of lesser talent, the outcome could have been so much different but the all-star cast manage to add just enough class to see it through. A term that gets bandied around which I usually tend to avoid is popcorn movie, but here it feels very relevant, serving as a welcome injection of light relief during the weighty awards season.