The boxing movie Grudge Match adopts a desperate rope-a-dope strategy. It does everything in its power to delay and distract you from its inevitable climax - when its stars, 70-year-old Robert De Niro and 67-year-old Sylvester Stallone, "brawl" in the ring.

That's a grotesque spectacle no one wants to see, especially the film's director, Peter Segal. So he has fashioned an elongated ramp-up to the fight fiasco.

The premise is that De Niro and Stallone were a pair of light-heavyweight contenders in Pittsburgh. After the pair split two epic fights in the '80s, Stallone retired from the ring. After all this time, De Niro is still obsessed with staging a rubber match.

But before these codgers take off their shirts and ruin everything, let's introduce some doughy subplots. Enter Kim Basinger as the dame who slept with both of them, setting off their still-festering feud. (Basinger's daughter, Ireland Baldwin, plays her younger self.)

And say hello to Jon Bernthal (Mob City) as the son De Niro didn't know and can't quite bring himself to care that he had.

Stallone has spent much of his career playing a palooka whose heart is bigger than his billowy trunks. And he has no trouble reprising that role. But De Niro has been slumming in dreck like this for so long, someone should call the Housing Authority.

If you've seen the trailers for Grudge Match, you probably think Kevin Hart and Alan Arkin are the stars. They actually have small supporting roles as a sleazy promoter and a retired trainer, respectively. But their brief volleys of old and short jokes (again respectively) provide the film's only life.

HBO's announcing team also makes an appearance, raising the question: How can you consider yourself a boxing movie when both of your pugilists look like they would lose to Larry Merchant?

Even though it's all preliminaries, no main event, Grudge Match is harmless enough as entertainment. Just not as harmless as its poor protagonists.


Grudge Match

** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Peter Segal. With Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Kim Basinger, Kevin Hart, and Jon Bernthal. Distributed by Warner Bros.

Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes, profanity).

Playing at: Opens Wednesday at area theaters. EndText