`Play It to the Bone' is all talk, no punch

January 21, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Play It to the Bone" is Ron Shelton on autopilot.

Shelton, the gifted writer-director of such sports-as-life mainstays as "Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump" and "Tin Cup," loves making films where the jocks do battle with words as much as with their muscles. At his best -- and films don't come much better than 1988's "Bull Durham," where Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon made baseball seem exciting, intellectual and sexy -- the results are lighthearted, character-driven valentines to the ethos of sport, propelled by literate scripts that reveal as much about the people who engage in sports as about the sports themselves.

"Play It to the Bone," the story of two past-their-prime boxers who get an unexpected second chance for glory, gets the character-driven part right, but pretty much stops there. Close friends Vince Boudreau (Woody Harrelson) and Cesar Dominguez (Antonio Banderas) have fun throwing verbal jabs at each other, and the amiable road trip Shelton sends them on makes for an amusing half-a-movie. But Shelton has no idea what to do with his fighters once the trip is over.

Vince and Cesar, both once-promising boxers who were cheated out of their boxing careers long ago, have been relegated to sparring with each other in a non-descript L.A. gym. But when the scheduled fighters on the undercard of the latest Mike Tyson bout both bow out, Vince and Cesar find themselves unexpectedly back in demand.

Seems the desperate fight promoters need somebody -- anybody -- to serve as Tyson's warm-up and are willing to pay the two friends $50,000 each to fight each other, with the winner promised a title shot.

So it's off to Las Vegas for our duo, chauffeured by mutual girlfriend Grace Pasic (Lolita Davidovich). Determined that both show off everything they've got once inside the ring, Grace is not above playing with both men's minds to ensure that happens.

"Play It to the Bone" benefits from an amiable chemistry between Harrelson and Banderas, and Davidovich always makes a good tough-as-nails dame with more smarts than any man will give her credit for. About halfway through the film, Lucy Liu (TV's "Ally McBeal") shows up as a smart-mouthed, gold-digging hitchhiker who is on the receiving end of the film's best punches (and not delivered by the boxers).

But beyond the banter, there's simply nothing to "Play It to the Bone." Its take on boxing -- that it's cruelly sabotaged by shiftless promoters and crooked officials -- is nothing new. And the buddy-buddy patter is nothing that Hope and Crosby weren't doing back in the '40s.

`Play It to the Bone'

Starring Woody Harrelson, Antonio Banderas and Lolita Davidovich

Written and directed by Ron Shelton

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Rated R (Language, sexuality, ring violence)

Running time 110 minutes

Sun score: **

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