Flying Squirrel Boxing Productions
The KO Picture Show
Presents. . .
Play It To The Bone (1999)

"A road trip to Vegas! With 2 boxers and their ex-girlfriend! Hope you brought the Travel Scrabble. Or earphones. Or a gun..."

One of the first reviews I wrote on this site last year was for a Ron Shelton-penned movie,
The Great White Hype. I mentioned in the review that the characters in that movie lacked the emotional depth that was so evident in his past efforts, like "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump". I also said that I wasn't sure if this was due to Shelton's writing or Reginald Hudlin's directing. I've since read that Shelton was very unhappy with the movie and even went as far as saying that he wanted his name taken off of it because it wasn't the script that he wrote. I don't know the context of his remarks, whether it was pre- or post-release, so I can't say if this was genuine frustration or just abandoning a sinking ship. Despite the film being a bomb at the box office, I gave it a favorable review, and it has found its share of fans in cable and video/DVD land since it's premiere in 1996. Obviously, though, Ron didn't think much of it. So after writing and directing the financially successful (but, in my opinion, painful to watch) golf movie "Tin Cup", Mr. Shelton decided to write and, this time, direct another boxing movie. Was he successful in creating his own vision of the boxing world in "Play It To The Bone"? Errrra. . not so much.

We have the framework for our movie within the first 10 minutes; 2 combatants on the undercard of a Mike Tyson fight in Vegas have become unavailable for various reasons, so the promoters have to find replacements (the promoters are played by Richard Masur, Robert Wagner, and Tom Sizemore and from this point  on they'll be known as "Mumbles McScarface", "Smoothy", and "Screamy", respectively.). So they put in a call to two washed up Middleweights who A) have had bad experiences with the promoters before, B) work out together in the same gym, C) both feel they have enough left to be champions, and D) just happen to be best friends. The allure of fighting in front of a huge crowd and the promise of getting a shot at the Middleweight title has them jumping at the chance, but, of course, there's one catch... they have to fight EACH OTHER!


So they accept the fight and, in what is becoming a hard to ignore avalanche of circumstantial wackiness, the only person with a car that could possibly drive them to the airport is the one guy's current girlfriend... who just happens to be the other guy's ex-girlfriend. The fact that she drives a lime green, convertible muscle car isn't really wacky, but it definitely has elements of contrived goofiness. Conveniently, the girlfriend/driver decides that instead of dropping them off at the airport, she's going to drive them from L.A. to Vegas, setting us up for a road trip that will undoubtedly have some moments of levity, with just a smidge of pathos and/or introspection. And who are our fellow passengers on this trip to Goofyville? There's Vince Boudreau (Harrelson), a former wildman who has made a half-hearted attempt to accept Jesus as his one and only. There's Cesar Dominguez (Banderas), who's Spanish... but not just 'Spanish'; he's "
SPANISH!". And finally there's Grace (Davidovich, who also happens to be Shelton's wife), who's sassy... but, as you may have guessed, not just 'sassy'; she's "SASSY!" Every opportunity is taken in this 10-minute intro to show Vince's mock-pious-ness, Cesar's Latin-ness, and to establish that Grace is SO much smarter than these 2 dorks. Grace dumps Cesar no more than a minute into the trip, just so all 3 of these losers are on the same level. And guess what? You get to spend the next hour with them!

I'll be brutally honest here; I can't think of 3 people from movie reality that I would like to be on a road trip to Vegas with
LESS than Vince, Cesar, and Grace. I mean, sure, driving down with Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, and Leatherface would be worse, but at least they'd engage me in more interesting conversation before they decided to kill and eat me. In "Play It To The Bone", it's not just the repetition of their base characteristics; when they finally get off the topics of religion, ethnic stereotypes, or female superiority it's usually boring, or worse, downright offensive. A prime example of this is the conversation that leads to Cesar revealing that he has experimented with homosexuality. The absolute shower of derogatory terms for a gay man that follows from everyone in the car is painful to listen to. The fact that this degree of homophobia was meant to be played for what I assume was comedic effect made me feel a little ill. I guess I should be thankful that it was a short aside, and we got right back to establishing our 3 lead's one-note personality traits. Vince finds it hard to stay on the straight and narrow after they pick up a beautiful but shallow hitchhiker (Liu). It's a sad state of affairs when an obviously cold-hearted, calculating golddigger like Liu's character immediately becomes the most likeable person in the car. Whenever his temper flairs (which is often), Cesar goes into Tourette's-like explosions of rapid-fire Spanish. I've watched Banderas in a number of movies and this has become his 'signature move', like Arnie's "Hasta La Vista" or Johnny Carson's golf swing before the monologue. But the most consistently annoying person throughout the trip is definitely Davidovich's Grace. She spends the entire time preying on both men's insecurities, smirking derisively at some of their more caveman-ish personality disorders, and never failing to display her sassiness. In my opinion she misses the self-sufficient, 'spunky' target by about a mile and goes right into being obnoxious.

P.S. - Banderas' character Cesar Dominguez had the ring nickname
"El Califa". I went to my online Spanish-to-English dictionary and was given 'caliph' as the one word definition. So then I went to my English online dictionary and looked up caliph and got the following definition:

caliph (NOUN) - A leader of an Islamic polity, regarded as a successor of Muhammad and by tradition always male.

This made another look in the dictionary necessary to look up
polity, which is defined as follows:

polity (NOUN) - 1. The form of government of a nation, state, church, or organization. 2. An organized society, such as a nation, having a specific form of government: "His alien philosophy found no roots in the American polity" (New York Times).

Call me an idiot (if you haven't already...), but I can't see ANY way that this nickname relates to Cesar specifically or the movie in general. Maybe I'm getting the wrong translation. If anyone can explain this to me, it would be greatly appreciated!


The Fightin' - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

After such a brutal trip just to GET to the fight, it was hard to stay objective when looking at the actual fight footage. Not surprisingly, it was a very mixed bag. With Shelton's reputation as a sports movie aficionado to bank on, they got some top-notch talent for the supporting roles and some fantastic cameos. Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Big George Foreman (who I miss dearly from the HBO fight broadcasts) lent an air of authenticity while calling the fight (although, the "I'm-being-chased-by-wolves-while-I-read-you-my-scorecard" voice of Harold Lederman was conspicuously absent). The galaxy of stars that they showed ringside (including Shelton-alums Wesley Snipes and Kevin Costner, James Woods, Tony Curtis, Jennifer Tilly, and many others) makes me miss the days when a heavyweight fight was an event. And credit has to be given to Harrelson and Banderas for getting into believable boxing shape. They obviously did their homework when it came to boxing mannerisms and their skills in the ring were above average, if not spectacular.

The fight trauma make-up was hit-or-miss. Harrelson's cut was very realistic looking, but the swelling around Banderas' eyes made him look comically Cro-Magnon. I swear that by fights' end I saw one of the false eyebrows on his bulging brow start to come loose.

There were a number of false notes as well. The most notable was the attempt to inject personality-related hallucinations into the round breaks. Vince's visions are split between picturing the round card girls topless and Jesus-sightings, while Cesar's homosexual past comes back in the form of picturing the referee naked. It was a real distraction from some of the great fight action. And while knockdowns make for exciting fights, I found it hard to believe that any referee (naked or otherwise) would allow fighters struggling as hard as Vince and Cesar were to get up before the 10-count to continue fighting. But the worst part was, without a doubt, the promoters. While Mumbles McScarface (Masur) was a benign (if unintelligible) presence, Smoothy (Wagner) and Screamy (Sizemore) were so exaggeratedly evil that it almost seems like Shelton was hedging his bet. It's like he realized that he'd made his protagonists so unlikable that he had to have his villains kick it up a notch. Personally, I think he missed the mark. He'd have to have the promoters slaughtering hordes of cute and fuzzy woodland creatures in order to make Vince, Cesar, and Grace become sympathetic by comparison.


Overall Rating - 1 - 2 - 3

I don't know where Shelton went wrong. He seemed to have such a great ear for dialogue in his earlier efforts, and his characterizations were so effortless. I don't know the extent of Shelton's boxing background, but some of the fighter's ruminations about boxing felt too scripted. You could almost picture Shelton during his research, feverishly writing down the sage pronouncements of some old boxer when he talked about "the crowd noise melting away" or "playing it to the bone". But when it comes out of Cesar or Vince's mouth, it seems wholly unnatural. It all added up to a very unsatisfying experience.

Rob Tillisch
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Starring: Woody Harrelson,
Antonio Banderas, Lolita Davidovich, Lucy Liu
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