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Two aging fighters in LA, friends, get a call from a Vegas promoter because his undercard fighters for a Mike Tyson bout that night are suddenly unavailable. He wants them to box each other. They agree as long as the winner gets a shot at the middleweight title. They enlist Grace, Cesar's current and Vinnie's ex girlfriend, to drive them to Vegas. On the trip, we see flashbacks to their previous title shots, their competitive friendship, and Grace's motivational wiles. (She has her own entrepreneurial dreams.) The fight itself is historic: ten rounds of savagery and courage. Who will win, who'll get the title shot, who gets Grace, and where will she find venture capital? Written by
A boxing film from minor or no league sports milieu chronicler Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump) with the not exactly untested talents of Antonio Banderas, Woody Harrelson, Tom Sizemore, Robert Wagner, Richard Masur, Lolita Davidovich and Lucy Liu. What's wrong with this picture? Nothing once you get to the last third and the actual fight ensues. It's the first 90 minutes that's not quite a knock out. In our overly commercialized and celebrity athlete obsessed world culture, Shelton has made a career out of showing us the world of the also-rans (and jumped and hit and thrown, etc.). For every record breaking multi-millioned contract holder making even more telling the world to guzzle the Gatorade, there's a hundred guys like "Durham's" Crash Davis trying to eke out one more season before taking a job at the sports shop or hardware store. This is "Bone's" big stumble, not really establishing what kinda of lives these two has-beens lead now that they are reduced to working as sparring partners at a no-name local L.A. gym. Shelton would have written this a whole lot smarter if he had picked a venue he knew better back east, say New Orleans or St. Louis for Banderas' Cesar and Harrelson's Vince to hail from. It would have made the road trip a helluva lot more interesting visually, moving through prairie to mountains to desert. Instead, we get dried brush and rocks as back drop for Cesar and Vince's back and forth that is supposed to tell us who they are. And who they are isn't all that interesting, which is what's going to doom this film with audiences. This is story that starts off in the most contrived way. In a chain of events that starts with the undercard of a Mike Tyson fight in Vegas getting hopelessly stoned and haplessly dead, respectively, we are then asked to believe that the promoter would even in panic call two guys who don't even really fight any more. The film really needs the audience to believe and believe in these guys after this and Shelton fails to make Vince and Cesar unique enough. People might plunk down their eight bucks for a flick with stupendous special effects, but a great fight? Which is the one thing that "Play It To The Bone" has - a helluva fight. For filmgoers who thought the book had been written on showing a boxing match with either the high art stylization of "Raging Bull" or the pop art sequences of the Rocky franchise, prepare for the most brutally realistic display of the sweet science yet shown. In a sequence that uses a refreshing paucity of slow-mo shots, we are taken through ten rounds of sympathy-welt-raising fisticuffs. At least we know the time Shelton didn't spend on researching his characters wasn't wasted hobnobbing with Tyson and the other real-life boxing personalities who pop up in cameos during this section. It was spent watching God knows how many hours of old boxing film.
The sequence also manages a subtle commentary on the empty spectacle of such "event" sporting events, as the oblivious main event crowd gets sucked into Vince and Cesar's career defining contest. Here's what a boxing match is supposed to be about: two hungry guys out to prove they are top dog. And right up to the conclusion Shelton is on his way to making the first uninspired 90 minutes disappear - then he pulls his last punches and ruins it. This is when the anemic character develpment and unorginality catches up with him. The audience feels sucker-punched going out the door.
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