'Play It to the Bone' lacks eye of the tiger
By JOEY LENISKI
Scene Movie Credit
Sports movies rarely concern themselves exclusively with the sport shown on the front of the promotional poster. Invariably the story goes beyond the confines of the gridiron, the squared circle, the diamond or the big green, into the conflicts and struggles of the hero's personal life. See "Raging Bull," "North Dallas Forty," "Rocky" or "Slap-shot" for classic examples where this tactic succeeds.
Formulas, however, are fickle things. The modern manifestation of this convention, while adding depth to typically thin plotlines, is used primarily to sell sports movie tickets to women who could care less how many rounds Rocky Balboa lasted in his first fight against Apollo Creed.
By trying to form a well rounded story, filmmakers will often make two entirely different movies which end up sutured together somewhere near the last quarter of the film. See "Gladiator," "Blue Chips" or "Rocky V" for prime examples where this tactic fails. And for further reference on this disturbing trend, please see "Play It to the Bone."
This film does not stray far from the sports movie formula: Two friends have one day to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to fight each other for a chance at the championship match, but can they survive each other along the way? Chances are yes, otherwise the movie would end half-way through. But let us suppress logic for now and give this movie the benefit of the doubt.
Vince (Woody Harrelson) and Cesar (Antonio Banderas) are over-the-hill prize- fighters who are offered the deal of a lifetime: a fight with one another as the undercard match-up for yet another Mike Tyson comeback bout. At stake: a shot at the title, something that has eluded both fighters throughout their careers. Fate smiling upon our heroes, they pack their bags, borrow Cesar's girlfriend Grace's (Lolita Davidovich) car, and head into the desert — almost. Grace insists on driving her souped-up convertible GTO herself, so the three pack their bags and head out into the desert.
Why two fighters given a dream-shot at the title would drive to Las Vegas instead of flying is beyond me, and never explained at all in the movie. Everyone knows that all road trips will inevitably result in unforeseen disaster and conflict between the travelers. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what happens with our three crusaders as they travel to fortune's Mecca via automobile. Everything from Jesus sightings to break-ups to homosexuality threaten to end Vince and Cesar's friendship and their trip eastward. But thanks mostly to the fiery attitude of Grace, these two warriors swallow their pride and remember how to behave like adults just in time to step into the ring and pummel each other with their fists.
Who wins the fight? Do they get their title-shot? Will you care at this point in the movie? Yes.
The fact that the audience actually cares about who wins the match this late in the story proves the film does have some redeeming quality. Unfortunately, the majority of "Play It to the Bone" is disjointed and rather disappointing. Writer/director Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump," "Tin Cup") is no stranger to the sports movie genre — in fact he basically reinvented it in the late 1980s. But the staple of the typical Shelton film was a main character with one great character flaw that constantly caused him to screw up both on and off the playing field. By the end of the movie, the hero never actually changes but achieves a moral victory by sticking to his guns. The audience loves this character, who it both pities and admires.
The two heroes in "Play it to the Bone" are convincingly flawed and pathetic, but neither Vince nor Cesar becomes admirable to the audience. Their flaw seems to be that both are just plain mean and immature with one another. In fact, the only character that invokes a real sympathy from the audience is Grace, the girlfriend/manager played with refreshing confidence by Davidovich.
Besides character problems, the portions of the film involving the physical and psychological aspects of boxing are either too flippant or extreme. The first half of the movie plays out like a typical buddy-drama with a twist of romance. But the fight sequence near the end is shot like a perverse nightmare, complete with unrealistic blood-bath and topless-women hallucinations, none of which has motivation or adds any important information to the story.
The thematic and formal schizophrenia in "Play It to the Bone" is ultimately confusing and unattractive. It will take its place with the other sports movie failures collecting dust on a video store shelf, while the more convincing titles will remain classics. Spend the money on renting "Tin Cup," or, better yet, go play a round of mini-golf. Will you choose the right color ball? Can you avoid the treacherous windmill? We shall find out … dum dum dum.
3 out of 5 shamrocks
All Scene Stories for Thursday, January 27, 2000