The boxing/road movie romp "Play It to the Bone" is yet another sports-as-metaphor comedy from writer-director Ron Shelton, whose previous, all-too-similar efforts on behalf of baseball ("Bull Durham"), basketball ("White Men Can't Jump") and golf ("Tin Cup") have struck a harmonic chord between testosterone and romance.
But despite great casting and an obliging -- if predictable -- set-up, this one lands with the thud of a ineffective body shot, largely because Shelton's formula has worn transparently thin.
Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas play antagonistic best friends and washed-up middleweights, given one last chance at glory if they can get from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in an afternoon to be the substitute undercard at a Mike Tyson bout.
The greasy fight promoter (Tom Sizemore), who has screwed over both of them in the past, makes this desperate offer because his two scheduled fighters have become suddenly indisposed -- one's in jail for possession and the other's in the morgue after a car crash.
Each of our heroes smell come-back and before long they're begging for a ride from sassy, straight-talkin' Lolita Davidovich -- Banderas' current squeeze and Harrelson's ex -- who drives the bickering boxers to Vegas in her vintage muscle car, a convertible, lime-green, 1972 Olds 442.
Backstories ensue, and before long it becomes apparent that Shelton is out of his element (boxing isn't his game) and out of material.
The comparisons to Shelton's earlier movies are inevitable, and with nothing new to say on the subjects of sports and sexual politics, "Play It to the Bone" just lacks the spunk and spirit of his high points in this highly specialized genre.
His characters have become self-perpetuating clichés (the down-on-his-luck sportsman/lover; the self-assured and sexually precocious beauty, pushing 40 with gusto), and here they are shallow and underwritten besides.
Although the actors are individually appealing as they search for character quirks to exploit (Harrelson is a hypocrite born-again Christian, Banderas admits to dabbling in homoerotica), there's little chemistry between Davidovich and either of her co-stars. What's more, her contemporary soliloquies on the nature of love completely lack the ironic, resounding truth the writer-director bestowed upon her predecessors, Susan Sarandon ("Durham") and Rene Russo ("Tin Cup").
Although "Bone" doesn't seem to have the pulse of its subject sport the way Shelton's previous films have, it still manages a respectable number of laughs. The one really good running gag involves the fighters' battered brains playing tricks on them in the ring.
But the audience is invariably two or more scenes ahead of the director at any given moment, and the story's architecture is barely masked behind the action on the screen.
"Ally McBeal" co-star Lucy Liu's appearance as an all-attitude tart Harrelson picks up at a roadside diner is just screaming "plot device." After the original threesome stops the car to put the top up, the rest of the interior scenes are obviously shot in a studio against a blue screen desert background.
The fight itself plays like a fast-forward rehash of every "Rocky" climax, condensed into 10 minutes of screen time. Distracting and gratuitous fight fan cameos abound (Tony Curtis, James Woods, Rod Stewart, Kevin Costner and Tyson himself -- followed by an obvious body double in another take), and Harrelson and Banderas land an absurd number of punches and knock each other to the mat no less than 10 times. It's so unrealistic, they might as well be Weebles.
Perhaps if Shelton were more of a boxing fan himself (it seemed to me he was winging it most of the time), "Play It to the Bone" might have measured up to his earlier sports comedies. But, frankly, I think it's time for him to move on to other genres. Seven of the nine movie's he's written have had sports themes. Come on, man. Expand your horizons.
Run time: 124 mins
In Theaters: Friday 21st January 2000
Box Office Worldwide: $8.4M
Production compaines: Touchstone Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 12%
Fresh: 9 Rotten: 69
IMDB: 5.4 / 10
Director: Ron Shelton
Starring: Antonio Banderas as Cesar Dominguez, Woody Harrelson as Vince Boudreau, Lolita Davidovich as Grace Pasic, Tom Sizemore as Joe Domino, Lucy Liu as Lia, Robert Wagner as Hank Goody, Richard Masur as Artie, Willie Garson as Cappie Caplan, Cylk Cozart as Rudy, Jack Carter as Dante Solomon, Aida Turturro as Mad Greek Waitress, Dana Lee as Man with Ferrari, Mike Tyson as Himself, Kevin Costner as Himself (Ringside Fan), Wesley Snipes as Himself (Ringside Fan), James Woods as Himself (Ringside Fan), Natasha Gregson Wagner as Herself (Ringside Fan), Drew Carey as Himself (Ringside Fan), Jennifer Tilly as Herself (Ringside Fan), Tony Curtis as Himself (Ringside Fan), Gennifer Flowers as Party Guest, Linnea Quigley as Overdosed Hooker, Rod Stewart as Himself
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