Ron Shelton’s new sports comedy, Play It to the Bone, suggests that the director’s most successful blueprint—over-the-hill jock inspired by sexy oddball muse and screwed over by corporate evil—may have finally calcified into crass formula. The movie takes the form of an interminable road trip (from L.A. to Vegas) and, presumably as compensation, climaxes with a 10-round boxing match bloodier and more punishing than anything in Fight Club (though less likely to inspire pious fulminations). Washed-up pugilists Vince (Woody Harrelson) and Cesar (Antonio Banderas) get one last shot at glory when the sleazoid promoters of a Mike Tyson pay-per-view event call them in as last-minute undercard (i.e., opening-act) replacements. For unexplained reasons, Vince and Cesar, who happen to be best friends, decide to drive to Vegas. And they get Grace (Lolita Davidovich), whom they both happen to be in love with (she used to date Vince and is currently seeing Cesar), to drive them.
Shelton’s road-movie antics are designed to provide the emotional context for the culminating fight, but the journey is a yawn—an outpouring of backstory, punctuated by cute episodic diversions and ill-advised running gags. Grace dumps Cesar, leaving the boys on seemingly equal footing. Vince and Cesar take turns revealing fall-from-grace sob stories. They pick up a hitchhiker—Lucy Liu (vixenish, naturally)—who fucks Vince and gets into a crowd-pleasing catfight with Grace (Shelton might want to try women’s tennis next). None of this feels like it matters, so, with increasing desperation, Shelton leans hard on the quirks: Vince is a newly born-again Jesus freak; Grace invents things and hopes to sell patents in Vegas. Most intriguing of all is Cesar’s confession (to Vince’s utmost horror) that he “became a fag for a while” after he was beaten by one. Shelton makes a show of toying with the homophobia and homoeroticism of male sporting worlds, but there’s no follow-through: Cesar’s disclosure serves mainly as an excuse for Vince’s potty-mouthed blue streaks, which Harrelson, best in the business at rednecks, handles with his usual panache.
Shelton’s most satisfying films—Bull Durham, Tin Cup, White Men Can’t Jump—are not only snappily written but oddly enhanced by a kind of baggy shapelessness. The dull-witted Play It to the Bone might as well have been constructed with a geometrical kit. Grace is less a character than a fulcrum in a lazily symmetrical setup; the cop-out ending stops short of proposing a Design for Living threesome. The most troubling aspect of the movie is the bone-crunching slugfest. Shelton indulges boxing-movie clichés (slo-mo punches, reaction-shot celeb cameos, lavish sprays of sweat, blood, and spit) and even attempts comic relief by visualizing the concussed boxers’ increasingly dopey hallucinations. But the sheer viciousness of the bout is baffling—both men leave the ring with blood streaming down their faces. Shelton reserves his scorn for the corrupt, cartoonish Vegas honchos (Tom Sizemore, Robert Wagner, and Richard Masur—maniacal, oily, and hoarse, respectively), but the match is shot, cut, and scored with an unmistakable bloodlust: Play It to the Bone ends up less an indictment of sporting exploitation than of the sport itself.