by Matt McKenna
The 2014 Academy Award nominees have yet to be announced, but it is a safe bet that Peter Segal's Grudge Match won't be taking home any hardware this year. And that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the film since it isn't very good. However, there are films that are bad by accident, and then there are films that are bad by design. Grudge Match is among the latter set. Why would a filmmaker go through the trouble of purposefully creating a movie they know will be universally panned by critics in addition to not making its money back? In the case of Grudge Match, it was utterly critical for the jokes to fall flat, the plot to be predictable, and the boxing sequences to languish in order for the film to express its critique of polarized partisan politics in the United States. Through both its content and its form, Grudge Match dissects the deleterious relationship between politics, the media, and a credulous population.
Grudge Match follows the time-tested Hollywood strategy of taking a genre film concept, casting the leads as older folks, and calling the whole thing a comedy (e.g. Space Cowboys, Last Vegas, Wild Hogs, etc). Specifically, Grudge Match belongs to the boxing film genre, the leads are played by 70-year-old Robert De Niro and 67-year-old Sylvester Stallone, and the film is littered with what appear to be jokes indicating the film is intended to be viewed as a comedy. Based solely on the description above, you can probably guess the film's plot: having grown old and pathetic, two retired rival boxers with convoluted, intertwined histories are lured into one last bout by a goofball promoter preying on each character's desperate need for pride and money.
If you feel like you've heard this story before, it's because you've have. In fact, you hear it every four years during Presidential elections. Or perhaps every two years if you have the unfortunate proclivity to pay attention to midterm elections as well. Of course, during election season we don't have the privilege of watching a silver-sideburned De Niro or a Human Growth Hormone fueled Stallone debase themselves on screen for our amusement. Instead, we are forced to watch representatives from the Republican and Democratic parties lumber onto our television sets and opine on whatever it is people are currently yelling about on cable news. It is no coincidence then that neither the film nor these elections are particularly fun to watch.
Clearly, the film's climactic boxing match between Kid and Razor represents election day: the two fighters, whom virtually everyone in the film agrees have no place in the ring due to their diminished boxing skill and fragile physique, mirror the usually old, frequently white, and more-often-than-not male politicians that most Americans, based on the low approval rating of both parties in Congress, believe are bad at their jobs. But if the boxing match represents the election itself, what about the scenes leading up to the climax?
The bulk of the film's second act contains two parallel story threads: 1) the obligatory training montages, and 2) Kevin Hart's character, a promoter named Dante Slate Jr., attempting to drum up demand for the upcoming fight. The fact that there is no inherent public interest in the Grudge Match fight is Segal's sly way of commenting that, without media promotion, elections in the United States would not be such a widely discussed topic.
To illustrate the media's role in promoting the boxing match and therefore national elections, Segal has the film's inciting incident be a scene in which Kid and Razor engage in an impromptu brawl while wearing silly motion capture suits. The scuffle is of course recorded and uploaded to YouTube where its subsequent popularity and the discussion it generates on cable channels such as ESPN is the impetus for the interest in the sanctioned fight that occurs at the end of the film. Once the fictional public's attention is initially grabbed by the video, Kid and Razor promote the fight by engaging in a series of media appearances that end, coincidentally enough, with more punching. In reality as in the film, quasi-spontaneous media-fueled rumpuses dominate the news and engender public interest in otherwise uninteresting topics such as yet another election between the two political parties that manage to maintain a duopoly in governmental power despite being widely disliked. Chris Christie's lane closures, the IRS's targeting of Tea Party groups, and sex scandals by both parties are all kindling for the partisan fire that incredibly always seems to culminate in what amounts to The Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes.
While the story itself mirrors the political circus we are doomed to suffer indefinitely, it is actually the film's form–it's very construction–where Segal most aggressively critiques American politics. It starts with the casting: because both De Niro and Stallone play boxers in their most renowned roles, the film compulsively winks at the relationship between the characters on screen and the now classic characters of film history. For example, in Grudge Match, De Niro performs a goofy stand-up comedy routine in a bar à la Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, and Stallone's character contemplates punching sides of beef in a meat locker à la Rocky in Rocky.
This meta-casting implies a critique of Republicans and Democrats penchant for reaching into their party's history to leverage the legacy of their respective heroes. Republicans like to hearken back to the glory days of Abraham Lincoln and use Ronald Reagan's name like a filler word during bloviations performed for audiences who are quite adroit at recognizing applause lines. Democrats, on the other hand, enjoy clearing earnest tears from their misty eyes as they fondly remember John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and Ted Kennedy and probably even Maria Shriver even though she's still alive. But just as LaMotta and Rocky cannot save the characters of Kid and Razor from becoming forgettable Hollywood flotsam, neither can Ronald Reagan or the Kennedy family make a Presidential election between a party-line Republican and party-line Democrat any more meaningful than one of the last half-dozen party-line elections.
If Segal failed anywhere, it was in not making the film bad enough. Rotten Tomatoes currently has Grudge Match at a 25% positive rating, which is more than double Gallup's latest Congressional approval rating of 12%. Indeed, there do exist a few entertaining scenes in Grudge Match that elevate the film above the absolute vacuity, and De Niro and Stallone are still watchable even as they meander through trite comedy bits involving ham-fisted jokes about testicles and rectal exams. Still, Grudge Match stands as an impressive feat of self-reflexive criticism of American politics that—forgive the pun–pulls no punches.