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PLAY IT TO THE BONE

by: Michael Dequina

The boxing comedy Play It to the Bone aims to be a pure entertainment vehicle, and for one thirty-minute stretch, it succeeds. The advertising campaign touts a big match between stars Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas, and in no way does the film disappoint in that area. Theirs is one helluva fight, expertly staged, edited, and containing more action than perhaps all the pay-per-view boxing events held in the last five years combined.

It is in every other area that this film disappoints--a fact that is made especially more disheartening considering the writer-director at the helm is none other than Ron Shelton, Hollywood's premier cinematic examiner of sports, as seen in films such as White Men Can't Jump and Bull Durham. Instead of a sharp satire of a subject ripe for parody--professional boxing--we get a tedious, unfunny road movie. Harrelson and Banderas respectively play Vince Boudreau and Cesar Dominguez, best friends and has-been middleweight pugilists who are given one final shot at glory when they're tapped at the last minute to plug a hole in the undercard of a Mike Tyson bout. The promoter, sleazy Joe Domino (Tom Sizemore), doesn't throw in L.A.-to-Vegas plane fare as part of the deal, so Vince and Cesar, along with Cesar's current (and Vince's former) girlfriend Grace (Lolita Davidovich), take to the open road.

This trip, which makes up most of the movie, is as long and dry as the miles of desert the three pass through. Along the way, Vince and Cesar recount their past traumas in the ring, the ones that consigned them to obscurity. And there are a number of jokes, none of which are particularly funny (Cesar experimented with homosexuality after his big loss--ha ha ha). One's hopes are perked up with the entrance of Ally McBeal siren Lucy Liu, who plays drug- and sex-mad Lia, who joins the trio's journey midway. Alas, not even she can redeem a poorly-conceived part whose only apparent purpose is to serve as an excuse to feature a gratuitous sex scene.

Upon arrival in Sin City, Play It to the Bone jolts the audience awake with its bravura centerpiece boxing match. There is never any doubt as to how this match will end--it's really obvious by the film's design. That the bout is still exciting and even nailbiting at times is further proof that Shelton is a master at cinematic recreations of sports. The celebrity cameos in the audience and the presence of the HBO Sports announcing team of Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and George Foreman add immeasurably to the fight's authenticity.

Frankly, I probably wouldn't have minded Play It to the Bone as much as I did if it hadn't featured such a terrific sequence. A completely bad movie is not a pleasure to sit through, but at least it doesn't come with the strong sense of frustration that comes with a film that has one great scene--especially one that shows the potential the whole project had. But once the fight is over, it's back down to earth and below with the uninteresting characters and their uninteresting personal issues, which, sadly, is the focus of the film. What it all comes down to is that Play It to the Bone is a boxing movie that is not only not about boxing--it's about absolutely nothing of value at all.

RATING: ** (out of *****)

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