A long-awaited match
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 (1980), and Stallone as the scrappy fighter in the Rocky franchise (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).
It took a comedy, Grudge Match, to bring them together finally. Directed by Peter Segal (50 First Dates, 2004) and opening in Singapore on Jan 9, it sees them play sparring rivals who return to the ring to settle a score.
Speaking at a press event in New York recently, Stallone and De Niro said they can relate to the fact that both their characters are underdogs - and mocked for being over the hill.
Many actors feel like the odds are against them, said Stallone.
"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."
Sitting next to him, De Niro nodded. "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."
While undeniably successful, both performers have had their ups and downs.
After dominating the box office in the 1980s, Stallone's career seemed to stall in the 1990s when he churned out flops, including the comedy Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! (1992) and thriller Get Carter (2000).
He also became a punchline on the comedy circuit, where his slurred speech and partial facial paralysis - due to nerve damage sustained during his birth - were mocked.
But - cue the rousing Rocky theme - the star clawed his way back the following decade, writing, directing and starring in several successful films, all financed outside the studio system.
These included the heartfelt sixth instalment in the boxing franchise, Rocky Balboa (2006) and 2010's The Expendables.
Stallone, to his credit, acknowledged 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," said 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. "You just never know - here we end up, back in the ring after 30 years."
De Niro had been on the receiving end of scorn too - in his case, for sullying his prolific career with bombs, including the drama Everybody's Fine (2009), comedies Showtime and Analyze That (both 2002), and his absurd detour into horror with Hide And Seek (2005).
Some questioned the actor's decision to venture into more-commercial fare, arguing that even box-office hits such as Meet The Fockers (2004) are beneath him.
Asked about this move towards lighter fare later in his career, he said: "I have to do what I feel I'm going to do, you know.
"I'm having a good time. I like doing comedies, they're different, it's a different thing...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...It's hard but invigorating at the same time."
Stallone also got a bit misty-eyed when he talked 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 when you say, is this possible? So yeah, to me, it was the best."