Play it to the Bone
Written and directed by Ron Shelton

Starring Woody Harrelson, Antonio Banderas, Lolita Davidovich


Play it to the Bone

"Play it to the Bone," sportsfilmmeister Ron Shelton's current production, is in many ways a structural repeat of three of his other films: "Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump," and "Tin Cup." Two athletes competing against each other, a strong woman who's attracted to both of them, a confrontation at the climax. The problem here, though, is a script that is slack and unfocused, replacing characters with caricatures and ending up as a mish-mash that doesn't work either as realism or as a cartoon.

The film starts out with a wonderful premise. Two boxers (Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas), former middleweight contenders but now just over-the-hill friends who work out together at the same Los Angeles gym, are suddenly presented with a great opportunity. The undercard fight at a Mike Tyson event in Las Vegas that evening has collapsed (one fighter has just overdosed on drugs, the other was just killed in an auto accident). If the two can get to Las Vegas by 6PM, they'll split $100,000 and the winner will get a chance to fight for the title.

Not a problem, except that between them they don't have money for plane tickets, and they don't own a car that runs. (Why didn't they ask the promoter to buy the tickets?) They go to former girlfriend of both men Lolita Davidovich, who will drive them to Vegas. So far it's a good setup for the five-hour drive and whatever will happen at the fight. But quickly the film devolves into rambling conversations and opening of old wounds among the three, with what appear to be scriptwriters' markers used instead of genuine personalities. So Harrelson sees Jesus, Banderas was bisexual, Davidovich -- well, Davidovich, who should be key to the film -- is a cipher. She talks but we don't know her. She acts, in a way, but there's no person there. She's just Davidovich reading lines, and the lines don't go anywhere.

Banderas and Harrelson do their best, but where has the early comic genius of Shelton gone? He's set us up for a confrontation with the crooked fight promoter, but then abandons it. In the promoter's favor, I might add -- a definite no-no in a supposedly comic film of this type. Things drag -- I kept thinking they'd never actually make it to Vegas in time -- but then we get to the fight itself, and we know instantly what the outcome will be, thus draining the last half hour of the film of any possible tension. The fight is well choreographed and shot, but all to a foregone conclusion.

And then Shelton tacks on a post-fight moment that just reinforces the weakness of the two characters, when he has Harrelson actually play out his dumb roulette 'system' with his fight money -- and lose it. The film is a sad failure for a filmmaker who should know better.    

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