12/22/2013 09:19 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2014

Holding a Grudge

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

This begins with full disclosure. I'm friends with film producer Michael Ewing and director Peter Segal. In fact, we're working together on a movie project I wrote that they'll produce, if the Hollywood Gods get their heads screwed on straight. So, I'm biased. Mind you, that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

So, when I say that I went to an early screening of their new movie, Grudge Match, I think it's important to add as a supporting buoy that last Wednesday The Huffington Post posted an article from the A.P. that said about the film, "It wouldn't work as a drama like 'Raging Bull' or any of the six 'Rocky' movies. But 'Grudge Match' excels as comedy, with enough laugh-out-loud moments and good cheer to put it in the early running for the feel-good movie of the holiday season."

And it has four stars on IMDB from the public who've already seen early test screenings.

So, just so you're aware, it isn't only me.

What leaped out is that the movie is so different than what I suspect the "pundit perception" is from the TV ads suggest.

Though the ads seem to suggest that the film is simply a comedy, I actually found it more a drama that happens to have comedy. To be clear, it's quite funny -- but it's the drama that makes the film work. Without it, it's a terrific, one-joke premise. "Rocky Meets Raging Bull." But with it, there is a rich story to the story's interest. In fact, there are long stretches that go by without a joke being made in sight, but letting the drama alone carry things. Movies like this can be a borderline problem for me -- you're waiting for the payoff, for The Big Fight, and it gets antsy waiting as you're teased for 90 minutes. But here, the movie is about more than the fight. In fact (for my taste...) the fight was almost anti-climactic. Almost. Clearly, it's fun to see these two legends in the ring again, at any age. But what comes before it is what matters far more than who "wins" the fight.

What the film is about is not making jokes about two old farts getting back into the ring. That misses the point. It's about getting on with your life, having regrets, lost love, the twists of family, making mistakes, accepting your decisions, and redemption. At the height of these two boxing greats' career, having split two epic championship battles, their bitter rivalry at an intense peak - one of them walks out, quits fighting altogether, for reasons he's never explained to anyone, but kept locked away inside. It upends his own life and leaves a deep hole, and rips apart the angst of his rival that's gnawed at him for three decades, never getting his chance for resolution.

Ultimately of course, for all the drama (and comedy), it's the two old guys getting back into the ring that makes the film an event. To team up the star of the Rocky series and the star of the legendary Raging Bull for a boxing grudge fight is a stroke of cinematic magic. There even is footage of the two actors training for those iconic films that is briefly included in Grudge Match.

I'd thought Alan Arkin would steal the movie -- and he was a hilarious joy as old trainer who is unfiltered with his pronouncements on life and gets around on a 4 MPH scooter -- but I was shocked that I think Sylvester Stallone steals the film. He was wonderful. Understated, often "soulful" in his weariness, and solid with the comedy. It's a terrific performance, and clearly he trusted the risky material that not only balances drama and comedy but also makes so much fun joking with his persona.

(For all the mocking swipes at Rocky Balboa in the film, there's also a wonderful comedy act that DeNiro's character does in his bar which is an homage to the nightclub act Jack LaMotta gives in Raging Bull. )

Yet good as Stallone is, I think the best scene in the film was when Robert DeNiro goes to his rival's home at night and, standing out front, gives the kind of performance that you'd be willing to wait a whole movie to see Robert DeNiro do anytime. It could have been over-the-top but was played just right. Dramatic, taunting, and even heart-breaking at times. A terrific scene.

That's the sort of thing that's so unexpected about the movie. It lets the drama play out. The film never seemed to let itself be forced to put a joke in because "it's too serious here and we need a laugh." There were long stretches without humor, and the movie not only doesn't suffer from that, it's strengthened by it. When the laughs do come, and they come often, they have something to play off of.

Mind you, for all this I didn't believe the story: I mean, let's be honest. There's no way on earth that these two old fighters would ever have been sanctioned by any sane boxing commission, nor would their fight be as pounding and action-filled as this one is. But scenes were made to be believable on their own terms, everyone's reactions believable, and so what is not remotely realistic in the larger framework gets accepted when focusing in, to watch the characters and appreciate its details. That's a tough trick to pull off.

I also suspect, for all that, this is a film that will get a wide range or reactions. After all, it isn't just a flat-out comedy. It isn't just a straight drama. It understandably covers a lot of familiar ground in parts, but then that's the very point that everything else in the story bounces off of. These are two old farts doing something ridiculous. But the core of the film is how those two remarkable legends at the center impact one another, and what they and everyone around them draws from that.

And so, in the end when the grudge finally has its way, who wins that third, tie-breaking fight? "Rocky" or the "Raging Bull"? Director Segal actually filmed three endings. The filmmakers didn't want the word getting out.

But then, as the saying goes, it isn't the destination, it's the journey to get there.


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.