Friday December 24, 1999
Ever since he made his directorial debut with "Bull Durham," Ron Shelton has displayed a winning way of taking us into the contemporary world of sports--even for those whose interest in them is minimal at best. In athletes' lives Shelton finds humor, lust, courage and no small degree of poignancy, and this is especially true of his latest, "Play It to the Bone," a wonderfully entertaining, raunchy, hilarious and savage foray into the lives of a couple of beat-up middle-weight boxers who get a second chance.
Woody Harrelson, who got his breakthrough movie role in Shelton's "White Men Can't Jump," and Lolita Davidovich, who played stripper Blaze Starr in Shelton's "Blaze," are joined by Antonio Banderas, in what is arguably his most challenging role ever and perhaps the richest since his collaborations with Pedro Almodovar. They may be cast as a trio of losers, but their performances are certainly winning.
Banderas' Cesar is a Madrid-born boxer now out of Philadelphia, living in L.A., where he has become best pals with Harrelson's Vince, a Texas-born fighter and a born-again Christian constantly upbraiding himself for taking the Lord's name in vain. Both guys had a shot at the big time that backfired, and now well into their 30s they're hanging in as sparring partners, but just barely.
When hours before yet another Las Vegas "Fight of the Century" Mike Tyson bout, both fighters on the undercard--the semi-main event--become unavailable, fight promoter Joe Domino (Tom Sizemore) turns to Cesar and Vince as replacements. They're astonished at this quirk of fate but know enough to hold out for title shots for both of them. When the shock wears off--and after Vince bungles negotiations for their price--the friends suddenly realize they will be fighting each other.
The first half of the film is a road movie, with Vince's former girlfriend--and Cesar's current lady--Grace (Davidovich) driving them to Vegas in her spiffy lime-green 1972 Olds convertible. Grace is sharper than the guys, a tireless promoter of self and of an array of "product ideas" for which she is constantly seeking backing. She tells the highly emotional Cesar that their romance is over, but shrewdly sets up both men to do their best when she tells each of them privately that he is the better lover--but lesser fighter.
There's lots of sexy bantering between Grace and both men that intensifies greatly when freewheeling 20-year-old Lia (Lucy Liu) hitches a ride. Lia is an upfront party girl eager to get down right now with Vince, swiftly confronting him with the old bedeviling question of whether or not an athlete should have sex before the big competition.
Awaiting their arrival with tough-guy Domino is a colorful array of henchmen. Suave casino owner Hank Goody (Robert Wagner in another amusing comic role) is a steely operator in a Brioni wardrobe and a well-practiced surface charm. Domino and Goody's key aides are the shrewd, unflappable Rudy (Cylk Cozart) and canny ex-fighter Artie (Richard Masur); their attorney (Jack Carter, in a nifty turn) is not the kind to inspire trust.
Cesar and Vince are in the thrall of a pack of sharks and know it, but we're in good hands, thanks to spot-on performances across the board--and that includes Aida Turturro's warm but take-no-nonsense waitress at a roadside cafe. We're in Damon Runyon land, brought up to speed for a sleeker, utterly ruthless present.
When Cesar and Vince step into the ring "Play It to the Bone" starts living up to its title. This second chance, dubious as it is at best, fires up Cesar and Vince to go all-out. Shelton evokes not the mythical fantasy of "Rocky" but the gritty spirit of George Bellows' classic 1909 painting "Stag at Sharkey's" in capturing the enduring visceral appeal of boxing, exciting in its suspense, deplorable in its brutality. Vince and Cesar go for a lengthy, bloody, old-fashioned slugfest, complete with colorful ring attendants and a celebrity-studded audience who are unexpectedly getting their money's worth.
This match is absolutely convincing, with Banderas and Harrelson and their fight doubles undetectably blended. The entire free-for-all is sustained unflaggingly by Shelton, who uproariously and daringly intermingles Cesar's and Vince's sex fantasies, which wash over them between rounds. Vince starts envisioning as topless the voluptuous, scantily clad women who hold up cards announcing the rounds, while Cesar has flashes of the match's trim referee (Darrell Foster) in the nude.
Yes, you read right. On the ride to Vegas Cesar has casually admitted to a homosexual phase in the wake of his big setback of years before. So maybe the phase isn't entirely over, which allows Shelton to create the sense that anything is possible between Cesar, Vince and Grace by the time he reaches his ending.
"Play It to the Bone" is surely going to be too raw for some audiences, but it does pack a punch, and no small degree of its pleasure is in its assured craftsmanship. Alex Wurman's outstanding score has an elegance that works well for the film, even if elegance may be an unexpected quality for a fight picture. Its songs are uncommonly apt, with "Here's to Life" sounding just the right note under the end titles. By the time the lights go up "Play It to the Bone" has become a love story.
Play It to the Bone, 1999. R, for brutal ring violence, strong sexuality, including dialogue, nudity, pervasive language and some drug content. A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Touchstone Pictures/Shanghai'd Films production. Writer-director Ron Shelton. Producer Stephen Chin. Executive producer David Lester. Cinematographer Mark Vargo. Editor Paul Seydor. Music Alex Wurman. Costumes Kathryn Morrison. Production designer Claire Jenora Bowin. Art director Mary Finn. Set decorator Danielle Berman. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Antonio Banderas as Cesar Dominguez. Woody Harrelson as Vince Boudreau. Lolita Davidovich as Grace Pasic. Tom Sizemore as Joe Domino. Lucy Liu as Lia.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times