Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ron Shelton
Stars: Woody harrelson, Antonio Banderas, Lolita Davidovich, Tom Sizemore, Robert Wagner, Lucy Liu, Richard Masur
Writer/director Ron Shelton (White Men Can’t Jump, Tin Cup, etc) explores the world of desperate jocks and failed aspirations with unrivalled authenticity and understanding. In Play It To The Bone he turns his cynical, jaundiced eye to the world of boxing, a once noble sport whose reputation has been irredeemably tarnished by recent scandals. Shelton has explored this world once before, with his script for the uneven boxing comedy The Great White Hype. Here he looks at the way in which unscrupulous promoters and entrepreneurs, loutish boxers, and obscene amounts of money have done much to tarnish the sport.
The film centres around Vince (Woody Harrelson) and Cesar (Antonio Banderas), two former boxing contenders who blew their chance at a championship title by underestimating their opponents or their promoters. For the past five years they have been largely forgotten in the boxing fraternity. Good friends, they now train together in an obscure gym in Los Angeles. Unexpectedly crooked promoter Joe Domino (Tom Sizemore) offers them the opportunity to fill the preliminary bout on a Mike Tyson fight card when the two scheduled fighters wipe themselves out through drugs and a traffic accident. All Cesar and Vince have to do is get to Las Vegas by that evening.
The pair convince Gracie (Lolita Davidovich) to drive them. A mutual former girl friend, Grace knows the two boxers best, and the road journey is a chance for some light hearted banter, personal reflections and soul searching. This section of the film offers some superb moments of comedy and insight, one of Shelton’s strengths as a writer. However, it is let down by the introduction of Lucy Liu, in a demeaning and thankless role as a hitchhiker whoring her way across the country.
When Cesar and Vince finally step into the ring, the film undergoes a dramatic change in tone as Shelton emphasises every bone crunching blow and blood spatter. But the sight of these two pugilists slugging it out for ten brutal rounds somehow temporarily restores the sport to its former greatness. The two central characters, faded champions who are given one last shot at redemption and salvation, are familiar elements of Shelton’s canon, but Banderas and Harrelson play them with the right amount of desperation. However, they also bring a charm and easy going style to their performances that is endearing.
Play It To Bone is part buddy/road movie and part boxing movie, but on both fronts it falls short of delivering the knockout blow Shelton promises. The film is far too long for what it has to say, and the pace is far too leisurely. There are also some scenes that hint of unnecessary padding, and some moments that just plain misfire. Shelton tends to belabour his points and the film lacks the subtlety, style and slick assurance of Bull Durham, etc. Shelton also crams the fight scenes with heaps of celebrity cameos, with the likes of Kevin Costner, James Woods, singer Rod Stewart, and George Forman all getting a brief look in ring-side to add some colour to proceedings.