More disappointing than one of those truncated, overpriced pay-per-view nonevents that have scandalized pro boxing in the ’90s, Ron Shelton’s foray into the world of pugilists, “Play It to the Bone,” is a woefully under-realized story of small-time boxers enjoying perhaps their last moment in the spotlight. The hope that Shelton, long Hollywood’s premier observer of sports, would bring fresh insight to the sweet science is unfulfilled on nearly every level. Slotted by Disney into a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles, pic will have a bit more breathing room when it’s released mid-January, but not enough for it to stand on its B.O. feet very long.
One of those rare cases of a project that probably spent too little time in the development pipeline, pic is rife with scenes crying out for rewrites. Though Shelton has said that boxing is his favorite sport, he not only misses out on many aspects of the ultra-colorful culture of the ring, but his characteristically wry sense of humor has almost totally escaped him this time around. Shelton’s patented combo of rough characters and good-natured observances remains intact, but it’s at the service of an ultimately pointless story.
Failure of tone is evident from the beginning, when two contending middleweight fighters are KO’d by life (one killed in a car crash, the other OD’d) and promoter Joe Domino (Tom Sizemore) must find subs in a hurry to fill the opening card of the latest Mike Tyson bout at Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel, owned by the slick Hank Goody (Robert Wagner). Domino and left-hand man Artie (Richard Masur) contact pals and ex-middleweight contenders Cesar (Antonio Banderas) and Vince (Woody Harrelson), now reduced to sparring in a lowlife L.A. gym. After protracted and hardly amusing negotiations, Cesar and Vince agree to fight each other for $50,000 each, with the winner earning a bid for the middleweight championship.
Considering that the bout’s tonight, you’d assume Domino would advance the pair cash for a round-trip flight. Instead, contorted plotting not only has the guys urging Cesar’s current and Vince’s ex-g.f., Grace (Lolita Davidovich), to drive them in her lime-green muscle car, but she insists on taking the highway rather than the speedy interstate in order to view the desert mountain “striations,” one of several non-jokes the script runs into the ground.
Pic divides into two dissimilar halves, the first a dawdling road movie in which the threesome, none of whom is terribly interesting, unload backstory baggage, and the second half the fight itself. Shelton tries to juice up the trio with eccentricities that are unconvincing, particularly Vince’s obsession with Jesus.
Further contrivances, including sex-and-drug-addled Lia (Lucy Liu) coming along for the ride, reveal little about the characters and basically waste time — a commodity Shelton’s trio is astoundingly unconcerned about. Pic’s strategy of trying to raise the emotional stakes, so that the culminating fight will be a true main event, serves only to make us impatient for the first-round ring of the bell.
Shelton means for his story to stress the purity of fighters working for a bare-bones payday and used by Domino’s corrupt legal team, headed by a man named Dante (Jack Carter). The increasingly vicious bout itself overwhelms the intended irony, though for once, pic delivers some powerful moments as Banderas and Harrelson throw their bodies and souls into some brutal, undisguised boxing. Play-by-play by the best in the business, Jim Lampley, immeasurably helps the sequence’s credibility.
Banderas and Harrelson are less sure in their performances as guys who once were contenders in the ring than they are at pure, one-on-one chemistry. Harrelson is burdened with the pic’s worst stabs at comedy, but he effortlessly conveys a guy struggling day to day with the only life he knows. Banderas’ biggest verbal outburst is in nonsubtitled Spanish, and he carries pic more with innate charisma than anything in the script.
In her best performance since her breakthrough in Shelton’s “Blaze,” Davidovich coaxes more passion and energy out of Grace than is on the page. Wagner basically plays Wagner as a Vegas hotel owner, while Sizemore and Masur struggle with erratic vocal delivery from scene to scene. Glut of cameos is less sparkling than intended.
Tech credits are average, including unmemorable camera coverage of climactic fight.