New YORK CITY -- The unlikely Christmas movie Grudge Match may be a lightweight comedy, but it has heavyweight cinematic lineage.
Its stars, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, each made one of the biggest boxing movies in the latter half of the 20th century. De Niro played self-destructive real-life champ Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese's 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull, the movie that won De Niro a best-actor Oscar.
Stallone, of course, wrote and starred in Rocky, John G. Avildsen's 1976 hit, which introduced the world to Philadelphia palooka Rocky Balboa, a loser who discovers his inner contender. The movie spawned five sequels and more recently, a musical coming to Broadway this spring.
Don't hold your breath waiting for a Raging Bull musical. But at least Grudge Match offers up a kind of sports fantasy scenario, pitting De Niro and Stallone against each other in the ring in the respective roles as Billy (The Kid) McDonnen and Henry (Razor) Sharp, a pair of long-retired Pittsburgh pugs pushed back in the ring by a simmering, decades-long rivalry.
It's actually the second onscreen pairing of De Niro and Stallone, who appeared together in the 1997 drama Cop Land. And while Stallone has frequently written the screenplays of his films, he does not have a hand in Grudge Match. At a press conference for the film, he asserts it never would have occurred to him.
"I had no intention of doing this," he says. "It was something I thought was absurd.
"No one wants to see (me doing) another boxing film, especially when you're approaching 160 years old. I might be a little rickety with some bones coming out," said Stallone, who is, in fact, 66.
In fact, it was De Niro, 70, who sold the idea to Stallone about doing the project together after he had been pitched the idea by director Peter Segal.
"I liked the idea of us doing it," De Niro says. "And so that was it."
Stallone eventually warmed to the story.
"We get to prove that you don't have to be crawling around at a certain age, that you're obliged to start winding down," he says. "It's kind of like going against trend.
"Plus, if you still have something to prove, and I think a lot of people as they reach 60 and above, they go: 'I have some unfinished business.' But unfortunately, life does not afford you the opportunity to go back and right the wrong. This is the beauty of fantasy and imagination to have these guys be able to go and correct a moment from their lives and make their lives feel somewhat fulfilled."
Director Segal says the film does indulge in "winking at their iconography" when it comes to referring to their past glories. De Niro's character has a nightclub act in the same template as La Motta in Raging Bull. And Stallone has a scene in a meat freezer, la Rocky, where he is about to throw a few punches at some sides of beef before his elderly trainer (Alan Arkin) scolds him: "We're just here to buy a little dinner. You don't have to punch everything."
Given that actors can be as competitive as sports figures about their work, I ask Stallone his opinion of Raging Bull and De Niro his opinion of Rocky.
"I never saw his movie. Was it any good?" Stallone jokes.
"I never saw his either," De Niro says with a laugh.
"At first, I thought it was about homesteading," Stallone says. "Or ranching."
Getting serious, Stallone continues: "It's probably one of the most brilliant biographies of all time. It's just incredible. And it's timeless. What can you say? It's just a perfect, perfect performance.
"Now I know he's not going to say that about me, so let's just move on."
De Niro, for his part, eschews comparisons.
"They are two different styles of film, obviously," he says. "They were very well done and I was impressed with the ones I saw, with what Sylvester had done with it as a craftsman, in all seriousness."
Grudge Match opens in Winnipeg on Christmas Day at McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital and Towne cinemas.