Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Lightweight Comedy

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 24, 2000:  A relatively minor effort in the Ron Shelton sports buddy movie canon (The Best of Times, Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, Tin Cup), Play It to the Bone pumps itself up, nonetheless, as an amiable sports-centric comedy. In all box-office honesty, the film's nominal boxing plot is unlikely to generate much interest (after football, baseball, basketball, golf and now boxing, one can only wonder how long before writer/director Shelton gets cracking on his definitive hockey movie). Fortunately, the film feels no compelling reason to go full-on Rocky, and spends most of its time out of the ring. Those attracted to theaters by either the film's witty trailers or the beefed-up, semi-clad presence of stars Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas will be surprised to find a relatively enjoyable, by-the-regs road movie awaiting them.

Play It to the Bone trains its eye on two down-and-out boxers from Los Angeles. Vince Boudreau (Harrelson) and Cesar Dominguez (Banderas) are best friends and fellow washouts, having flushed their professional careers years earlier in some questionable dealings. The sparring partners get a second shot at the big time, though, when a big Las Vegas promoter calls them on the spur of the moment with the deal of a lifetime. Seems that two boxers on the undercard of Mike Tyson's big comeback fight have suddenly become "indisposed." If Vince and Cesar can make it to Vegas by 6 p.m. that very evening, they'll split $100,000, get seen on worldwide pay-per-view and land a possible shot at a title fight. The only catch, of course, is that they have to fight each other.

Stoked at the prospect of money and fame (and dismissive of the pending war between them), the two pals pile obliviously into the cherry 1972 Olds 442 muscle car of galpal Grace Pasic (Lolita Davidovich) and road trip their way across the California desert to Vegas, baby. Naturally, our two competitive combatants are at each other's throats long before they hit The Strip. Matters are complicated by the fact that Grace was romantically involved with both of these bruisers at one point or another. To up the friction level even more, a slutty, loudmouthed hitchhiker ("Ally McBeal's" Lucy Liu) soon joins the tense little motorcade. Secrets are uncovered, backstories are revealed and we're treated to plenty of Shelton's trademark bouncy banter.

Harrelson and Banderas make a fine duo, tossing Shelton's quips back and forth like a couple of expert jugglers. Harrelson's slightly nutty born-again boxer (who believes Jesus was the original anarchist) gets a good deal of the punchlines while Banderas plays the straight man with a liquid ease. The buddy bond between Harrelson and Banderas is tangible (and in a few hilarious moments, unabashedly homoerotic). The actors' tight kinship helps drive home the film's intriguing central question -- namely, could you beat the living hell out of your best friend for 50 grand? To his credit, Shelton works up a believable scenario in which two professionals strive, ultimately, for dignity (albeit a bloody, split-lip, sweat-soaked kind of dignity) in their chosen field of endeavor. By the time we reach Vegas, we've spent enough time with these scrappy characters to know how much is at stake for them and how far they will go -- not just to "win," but to look like winners.

Aside from the "tear in my beer" manly-man emotional issues, though, Play It to the Bone offers up few strong romantic or comedic subplots. Take away Shelton's amusing dialogue and his well-trained eye for sporting realism, and you've got a fairly cliché cross-country adventure. Moviegoers looking for another Bull Durham will be sorely disappointed. Those looking for an amusing comedy in the lightweight division should be suitably entertained.


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