Coming to blows
It's easy to see how Play It to the Bone, writer-director Ron Shelton's latest comedy-drama, got started. Shelton obviously wanted to do for boxing what he'd already done for baseball in Bull Durham, for golf in Tin Cup, and for pick-up basketball in White Men Can't Jump. But somewhere along the way, the light, quirky amiability that infused that earlier trio of films got swept aside in a surfeit of ill-advised moves and off-kilter ambitions. The result is a road movie trapped in a cul-de-sac. Instead of simply scoping out a milieu, dropping a few characters and situations into it, and having fun, Play It to the Bone aims to combine Oliver Stone-styled deepthink with Quentin Tarantino kookiness. The result is an extravaganza replete with graphic ringside action, "zipless" sexual commingling, and even a religious hallucination or two. Shelton is far too good a filmmaker to let a viewer's eyes or mind stray for long. But stray they do toward thoughts of less overheated filmmaking.
The basic story is pretty simple: When a drug overdose and sudden suicide eliminate the contestants of a prizefight planned as an hors d'oeuvre for one of Mike Tyson's lightning-swift, multimillion-dollar "matches" in Las Vegas, a pair of middleweight has-beens are tapped to fill in. All they have to do is put on a good show. But Cesar Dominguez (a becalmed Antonio Banderas) and Vince Boudreau (a hyperactive Woody Harrelson) aren't just boxers down on their luck -- they're the best of friends. As a result, the pair quickly find themselves embroiled in something other than a momentary reprieve from what novelist Budd Schulberg so aptly described as "a one-way ticket to Palookaville." Loudmouth Vince wants to take charge of the situation -- the better to score revenge on the fight's sleazeball promoter (Tim Sizemore -- who else?). Cesar, meanwhile, hopes a win will give him a chance at the boxing big time once again.
Happily, Shelton doesn't have Rocky V in mind. But what he does come up with isn't all that far from another Bull Durham: Cesar and Vince have the same girlfriend, Grace (Shelton inamorata Lolita Davidovich). But rather than choose between a volatile good guy and a lovable lunkhead, as Susan Sarandon did in that memorable comedy, Davidovich has two lunkheads on her hands. And she isn't inclined to make a choice.
While Grace's affair with Vince has supposedly been over for some time, it's clear she still has a warm place in her heart for him. The first thing she announces to the hapless Cesar when he tells her of the upcoming fight is that they're through. Well, not completely through, as she offers to drive him and Vince to Vegas for the fight. The stage would seem to be set for a pugilistic Design for Living, with our heroes vying to win both the fight and Grace's unstable semiaffections. But Shelton pushes this aspect of the plot aside, instead using the ride as a hook on which to hang a series of flashbacks and verbal digressions in which the characters examine themselves, to no particularly illuminating end. The screen trip, unfortunately, seems twice as long as the real one would have taken.
Grace is a typical Shelton heroine -- so smart that you wonder why she'd give a pair of losers like this the time of day. Vince is not only a punch-drunk flake who has visions of a dashboard-styled Jesus floating round his addled brain; he's also on the verge of a full-blown schizophrenic collapse. Cesar, meanwhile, brings up -- completely out of left field -- memories of how his defeat a few years back at the hands of a gay boxer caused him to question his Spanish machismo to the point where he briefly experimented with gay sex. No sooner has Shelton reached for this sociocultural hot potato than he drops it, declining to explore Cesar's experimentation in any way. What he offers up instead is a side trip to an already overweeningly symbolic journey via a hitchhiker played by Ally McBeal playmate Lucy Liu. A snarling, craven slut who might have wandered in from a Neil LaBute nightmare, this character seems to exist for no other reason than to give Vince -- shocked by Cesar's confession -- a vehicle to comically reassert his manhood.
All of this, of course, is just vamping for the big-fight finale. And here Shelton contents himself from distancing the film not only from Sylvester Stallone but from more classic moviemaking as well. Rather than the cool black-and-white of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, the boxing action of Play It to the Bone is in full bloody color. Zeroing in on the details of physical damage with gusto, the film quickly pushes aside the characters' personal and professional concerns. Rather than illuminate anything about Vince or Cesar, the match turns them into mere pieces of meat.
Doubtless there are fight fans who might take a fancy to this. The bout is conceived and executed as a boxing wet dream: evenly matched opponents knocking each other down and picking themselves up, time after time, as the crowd roars. But anyone who has been paying attention to the plot and characters up to this point won't be so sanguine. For when the smoke clears, it's a wonder not only that either of the heroes has survived, but that the viewer -- by now rendered as dazed and confused as the contestants -- can remember who they are at all. Maybe Shelton would be advised to try polo next time out.
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