Play It To The Bone

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Play It To The Bone

6

USA 1999
director – Ron Shelton
script – Ron Shelton
cinematographer – Mark Vargo
stars – Antonio Banderas, Woody Harrelson, Lolita Davidovich
124 minutes

Play It To The Bone is a very odd film, and it isn’t a surprise that it bombed spectacularly at the US box office. That isn’t to say that it’s badly made, boring or offensive – but itwas clearly made with a very specific, relatively small target audience in mind. I think you have to at least have some interest in boxing to get the most out of this movie, and if you’re at all squeamish about seeing the bloody realities of the ring, you’d do best to either stay away altogether or walk out at the 80-minute mark, because the film climaxes with a remarkably visceral ten-round slugfest between its two leads, Banderas and Harrelson, that’s unlike any boxing match I’ve ever seen in a film before.

The intensity of the protracted fight is all the more surprising given the laid-back charm of the film’s first hour. Due to a series of very unlikely contrivances, two boxers are needed at very short notice to form part of the undercard supporting a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas. For reasons never satisfactorily made clear, Banderas and Harrelson, two past-it has-beens who are now best buddies and reduced to sparring in a lowly Los Angeles gym, are selected by promoters Tom Sizemore and Richard Masur, and are offered the slots on condition that they get themselves to Las Vegas pronto.

It’s at this stage that Play It To The Bone (by the way, I think I’d have gone for something less unwieldy as a title, Undercard perhaps) starts to divert pleasingly from the well-trodden path of previous movies. You expect that the boxers’ trek from LA to LV will become a frantic race against the clock, with comic diversions, mishaps and kookiness along the way. Not a bit of it. Banderas and Harrelson persuade Davidovich, a no-nonsense would-be entrepreneur who’s had flings with both guys in the past, to drive them, and she does so, deliberately avoiding the soulless freeway in favour of the relatively sedate pace of the scenic ‘old roads’. What this allows the film to do is comprehensively sketch in the three characters’ backgrounds in a realistic, unhurried, rather literary way (in keeping with Shelton’s previous explorations of this sports/two-guys-and-a-girl territory, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and White Men Can’t Jump). The only ‘mishap’ involves a disruptive hitch-hiker, played by Lucy Liu, but even this subplot doesn’t proceed in the way audiences have been trained to expect.

So, by the time the boxers have arrived in Vegas with time to spare, Shelton has pretty much succeeded in his aim of putting the viewer alongside Davidovich in cheering on both participants. This makes the ensuing fight, for all its graphic detail, as much an emotional spectacle as a physical one, given an extra comic twist by Shelton’s frequent cutaways to real-life celebrity fight fans – including a silent cameo from Rod Stewart which provides the film with its funniest gag.

The fight sequence is so convincing and effective, however, that there’s a real sense of bathos to everything that follows it, and the film proceeds to lamely fizzle to a non-conclusion capped by Davidovich’s crashingly redundant final line. Towards the end, Harrelson and Banderas are seen frittering away some of their purse in a Vegas casino, and you feel that Shelton’s doing exactly the same thing at the same time, except it’s the goodwill he’s so carefully built up that he’s so carelessly frittering away. There are other lapses – God-botherer Harrelson’s recurrent visions of Jesus are an unwelcome distraction, and the supporting characters are underdeveloped stereotypes. In addition, the film’s looseness occasionally feels uncomfortably like plotless aimlessness. For me, however, these problems weren’t sufficiently serious to cancel out the film’s overwhelmingly genial, beguiling good nature. Shelton, like Davidovich’s character, aims to examine the “striations” of his subject matter by taking a scenic, careful route, well away from the mainstream. To my mind, he’s succeeded – but I can see that, for most people, that won’t be enough. This is a good boxing picture – but it is a boxing picture.