It’s a movie version of a timeless bar debate: Who would win in a fight, Rocky Balboa or Jake LaMotta?
It’s a great tease, but “Grudge Match” isn’t out to provide any definitive answers. Robert De Niro is not playing the Raging Bull this time, but rather Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, and Sylvester Stallone trades Philly’s favorite son for Pittsburgh’s Henry “Razor” Sharp. The two come together as old-timers looking to rekindle a 30-year-old rivalry in a movie aiming for LOLs over TKOs.
But how exactly did two of cinema’s greatest boxers finally come together? One would be tempted to credit Stallone, who clearly has no qualms about revisiting past glories in films like “The Expendables” and “The Escape Plan,” but it turns out the big man was — dare we say — afraid?
“I didn’t want to do it,” says the 67-year-old Stallone with a chuckle. “Rocky got scared. I thought, ‘Am I making a mockery of something that a lot of people take seriously?’ I am so humbled that the city of Philadelphia has embraced Rocky. But Bobby (De Niro) called me a few times. He pounded me into submission.”
De Niro, 70, offers up a wry smirk when reminded of Stallone’s hesitation: “He was anxious about things, but I felt we’d be alright,” explains the veteran actor, who has found a late-career home in comedy. “I told him we’d be OK. We should go for it.” Stallone also realized this movie represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Our careers have pretty much followed the same timeline,” says Stallone. “We were up against each other in ’77 for Best Film with ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Rocky.’ We have a long history together. And it’s great to finally be working with him.”
Despite Stallone’s aversion to poking fun at the Italian Stallion, he admits that “Grudge Match” does offer up few winks to the audience during Razor’s training sequences (including a visit to a very iconic meat locker) that, in his words, “aren’t crossing the line” and are all in good fun. In fact, it’s the overriding sense of fun that allows “Grudge Match” (which hits theaters Dec. 25) to successfully shed the weight of its stars’ iconic baggage. This is no vanity project — literally. Witness one sequence that requires Stallone and De Niro to don skintight, lime-green bodysuits as their characters record motion capture for a boxing video game.
“I felt like a schmuck,” is De Niro’s extremely De Niro-esque assessment of the scene. “(Stallone) looked great, though.” Stallone’s take is a little different, as he credits De Niro’s comedy chops for making the scene work. “You just gotta let (vanity) go. And I think he does it better than I do. When we first walked out in the green suits, I went, ‘All bets are off now!’”
While goofing around outside of the ring was fine, Stallone approached the action inside it with his usual intensity, working out the fight sequences with great detail. “Sylvester choreographed the whole thing,” says De Niro. “He took the lead on it, and he’s got all this great experience. To my surprise he said, ‘Don’t worry if you hit me or this or that…’” A nice sentiment, but Stallone may not have been entirely honest with his co-star. “We were using real, eight-ounce Everlast gloves,” says Stallone, rather than the padded “prop” gloves worn on other films. “If you make a mistake and connect with those, it’s lethal.”
While the Jake vs. Rocky debate will carry on, have Stallone and De Niro inadvertently opened up a whole new franchise possibility? Might we see a “Grudge Match II” in a few years? Stallone shows no hesitation: “Sure! In Hollywood, anything’s possible! But next time no shirts off. It’ll be flesh-colored tank tops! That’s the deal!”
WATCH THE MOVIE'S TRAILER.
—By Eric Alt
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.