Play it to the Bone

Play it to the Bone (18)

SOME movies are a mixed bag from the start, and Play it to the Bone is one of them.

Half road movie, half gritty boxing epic, it combines both genres without ever coming to a decision as to which one it really wants to be. Two movies in one is acceptable if the demarcation line is clear; when it’s not, the film becomes a slog from the outset.

Yet not all is lost in this meandering tale. While the performances are generally perfunctory, some of the boxing sequences which build to the film’s bloody, furious finale are particularly well-staged and choreographed.

The story surrounds two washed-out professional boxers, Cesar (Antonio Banderas) and Vince (Woody Harrelson) who, at the very fag-end of their careers, are given one last chance to box for big money in Las Vegas.

The old story, you may think – until it’s thrown in that Banderas and Harrelson are best mates and have to summon up the killer instinct to fight each other to grab that bag of loot. It’s like two gold-diggers squabbling over that mythical sack of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Writer/director Ron Shelton is an old hand at sports movies, with Cobb, Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup to his credit. He lists boxing as his favourite sport, and it shows in the lovingly crafted sequences of Banderas and Harrelson in the ring.

Yet when it comes to character development, much gets lost in the seemingly interminable road trip to Vegas, where Cesar and Vince blag a lift with Cesar’s ex-girlfriend Grace (Lolita Davidovich) and pick up hitch-hiker Lia (Lucy Liu).

There is some insightful verbal sparring between the two leads over the nature of the fight game, their wins and losses, and whether either will have the nerve and spirit to face the other in the ring.

Indeed, the film’s main strength lies in Shelton’s analysis of what makes men fight and the rapid disposal of loyalties and allegiances when cash and glory raise their heads. During their race to Vegas Cesar and Vince are laid bare, but their friendship and rivalry fails to hold the various strands of the plot together.

Banderas, with his perfect features, looks as convincing a boxer as Mike Tyson looks a ballet dancer, while Harrelson veers from homophobic pugilist to Jesus freak while falling headlong for Liu’s superfluous nympho hitcher.

The fight itself, when it arrives, is a killer. Presided over by ruthless fight promoters Tom Sizemore and Robert Wagner, the match becomes a series of blistering, animalistic moments of gladiatorial combat. You feel every punch., as does the crowd, which features cameos from Kevin Costner and Rod Stewart.

And while Shelton may appear to be showcasing his favourite sport, his gruesome, in-your-face camerawork combined with Banderas’ and Harrelson’s frenzied physicality probably does more for the cause of the anti-boxing lobby than a dozen Rocky flicks.

A belly punch rather than a knockout, but worth sticking with for that brutal second half.

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