Ageing raging bulls

Cinema Still: Grudge Match, starring Sylvester Stallone.

NEW YORK- If you were going to make a movie about ageing boxers, you would probably want Robert De Niro or Sylvester Stallone in it.

After all, both men have starred in iconic boxing films - De Niro with his Best Actor Oscar-winning turn in Raging Bull in 1980, and Stallone as the scrappy fighter in the Rocky franchise from 1976 to 2006.

Now 70 and 67 years old, respectively, they would not have to fake the "ageing" part, either.

Yet their vastly different acting resumes made it rather unlikely that they would ever share a screen. Stallone's oeuvre has been populated by mumbling action heroes, while De Niro is considered one of the finest dramatic talents of his generation after electrifying performances in such films as The Godfather Part II (1974) - which won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar - Taxi Driver (1976) and The Deer Hunter (1978).

It took a comedy, Grudge Match, to finally bring them together. Directed by Peter Segal (50 First Dates, 2004) and opening in Singapore next week, it sees the pair play bitter sparring rivals who return to the ring to settle a 30-year-old score.

Speaking to reporters at a press event in New York this month, Stallone and De Niro tell Life! they can relate to the fact that both their characters are underdogs - and repeatedly mocked for being over the hill.

A lot of actors feel like the odds are against them, says Stallone, who notes that even the successful ones sometimes have a chip on their shoulder.

"Sure you feel like an underdog. Because when you're establishing yourself and trying to get a job and going against the studios, it's a big mountain to climb.

"And I don't know if you ever really get over it. It's kind of like if you didn't have a lot of money - no matter how rich you are, you still feel like, 'I could go broke tomorrow'."

Sitting next to him, De Niro nods.

Even a famous actor like him can feel invisible sometimes, he says.

"You have those feelings. And when you get older, there's a discrimination against age. When you walk down the street and you see younger people, all of a sudden, they don't look as much, they don't turn, they're not interested.

"It's like you're ignored."

While undeniably successful, both performers have had their ups and downs, with critics periodically declaring that their best years are over.

After his breakout success with Best Picture winner Rocky - which he wrote as well as starred in, earning Oscar nominations for both Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor in 1977 - Stallone went on to write, star in and occasionally direct another lucrative franchise, the Rambo super-soldier films (1982 - 2008).

After dominating the box office in the 1980s, however, his career seemed to stall in the 1990s when he churned out a series of flops including the action comedy Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! (1992) and crime thriller Get Carter (2000).

He also became a punchline on the comedy circuit, where his slurred speech and partial facial paralysis - the result of nerve damage sustained during childbirth - were repeatedly mocked.

But - cue the rousing Rocky theme - the resilient star began clawing his way back the following decade writing, directing and starring in several successful films, which were all made and financed outside the studio system.

These included the heartfelt sixth instalment in the boxing franchise, Rocky Balboa (2006), where an older, wrinklier Rocky hauls himself back into the ring; the fourth Rambo film in 2008; and 2010's The Expendables, which rounds up 1980s action stars such as Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke to play an elite group of mercenaries.

Although panned by critics, the latter topped the box office and spawned an even more profitable sequel, The Expendables 2 (2012), with a third instalment due out next year.

Stallone, to his credit, seems to take the criticism and other setbacks in his stride.

When co-star Alan Arkin, who plays his manager in Grudge Match, talks of doing not just comedies but also "depressing movies - intentionally", Stallone chirps: "I've done them unintentionally."

He also acknowledges the elephant in the room: the glaring contrast between his resume and De Niro's.

"It's interesting, because we kind of started out almost at the same time," says Stallone, turning to him.

"I'll never forget when Rocky was showing at the theatre, and then you were two doors down with Taxi Driver.

"I said, 'Who is this guy with the mohawk?' and thought, it's a pretty good film. I wouldn't have the guts to do that kind of film."

After that, they took two completely different directions, he said. "When I did (the first Rambo film) First Blood, I had no intention of doing action, I just went that route.

"And he became a great dramatic actor. You take these tributaries in opposite directions and, in this business, you just never know - here we end up, back in the ring after 30 years, but having had incredibly diverse careers.

"His is lucky, mine is scorned," he says good- naturedly. "But it's a good scorn."

Of course, De Niro has been on the receiving end of scorn as well - in his case, for sullying his impeccable credentials and prolific career with a series of bombs, including the adventure drama Everybody's Fine (2009), the comedies Showtime and Analyze That (both 2002), and his absurd detour into the horror genre, Hide And Seek (2005).

Some have questioned the actor's decision to venture into more commercial fare, arguing that even box-office hits such as the screwball comedy Meet The Fockers (2004) are beneath him.

De Niro silenced them, however, with his role in the acclaimed comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which demonstrated his dramatic range once again and earned him an Oscar nomination last year.

Asked about this move towards lighter fare later in his career, and if it is because he simply cares less about what people think, he says: "Well, you always care what people think about you. But I have to do what I feel I'm going to do, you know. Because it's not going to matter in 30, 40 years.

"I'm having a good time. I like doing comedies, they're different, it's a different thing. Sometimes it's luck, what comes your way. Sometimes you can create things that will have a certain substance.

"So I'm okay. I consider myself very fortunate. The choices I've made in my life are ones that I'm comfortable with."

With Grudge Match, he also relished the chance to take on a more physical role.

"To me, it was an excuse to get back into training and boxing. And Sylvester had a guy who's terrific, who was not just trainer but a boxing scholar of sorts, a very smart guy."

For the fight in the movie, "he trained me in New York and Sylvester in California, and we met in New Orleans and worked on it (together)".

"It's hard but invigorating at the same time."

Stallone also gets a bit misty-eyed when he talks about filming the climactic scene with De Niro.

"It was lovely. I like going in the ring, and to finally get in there with him... that was the dessert, the icing on the cake. It was one of those amazing moments where you say, is this possible? So yeah, to me, it was the best." For all the talk of a cult of youth, recent years have seen the rise of the ageing action hero in Hollywood - a byproduct of the fact that few young stars have the name-recognition and bankability of older and more established ones, say industry watchers.

It helps that many films do not shy away from the age of their protagonists, using it as a way to enhance their underdog status, or as grist for comedy. But some have been more successful with the formula than others.

Older guys get all the action

The Expendables (2010)

Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, then 64, who recruited several other 1980s action-movie has- beens (Dolph Lundgren and Eric Roberts, who were both in their early 50s) along with younger stars for his team of crack mercenaries. Despite lukewarm reviews, it topped the box office in the United States and spawned an even more lucrative sequel, The Expendables 2 (2012), which also stars Jean Claude Van Damme (above) - earning more than US$85 million (S$1 billion) in the US. The third instalment will be out next year.

Red (2010) and Red 2 (2013)

Also about a group of greying guns-for-hire, played with aplomb by Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Bruce Willis.

Willis, 55, also did action-man duty on two other films last year - the sequel to G.I. Joe and A Good Day To Die Hard. Red 2 did not do as well as expected (more than US$53 million in the US, compared to the first film's $90 million), but well enough for a third film to be given the go-ahead.

The Last Stand (2013)

Arnold Schwarzenegger's big comeback, which cast him as a sheriff (left) facing off against a drug cartel in a David-and-Goliath battle, bombed at the box office (just US$12 million). His next movie Escape Plan, a thriller opposite Sylvester Stallone, flopped in the US too, although it managed a decent showing overseas. In any case, this has not stopped the 66-year-old from signing on to a bunch of other movies, including The Expendables 3 and sequels to some of his earlier hits, including the Terminator (1984 to 2003) and Conan movies (1982 to 1984) as well as the comedy Twins (1988).

Taken 2 (2012)

A sequel to 2008's Taken, the story of a former CIA agent played by Liam Neeson (above) forced out of retirement to rescue his daughter from kidnappers. The first film transformed Neeson's career and turned the soft-spoken actor - who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the 1993 Holocaust drama Schindler's List - into a bona fide action star. The sequel, filmed when Neeson was 60, earned almost US$140 million.

All Is Lost (2013) and Captain Phillips (2013)

Although the latter might not be strictly considered an action film, both are adrenaline-soaked adventures on the high seas that see older male protagonists outwitting the elements and the bad guys, respectively. Both are also getting major buzz heading into the awards season next year. Critics are hailing All Is Lost as a tour de force by Robert Redford (right), who carries the entire film on his 77-year-old shoulders and performed many of his own stunts. As the plucky Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks (below), 57, is also said to be in line for a gong or two.


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

SERVICES