Published December 1, 1999
Play It To the Bone, directed by Ron Shelton, is a Woody Harrelson movie in every sense of the term — that is it is full of macho posturing at the same time that it attempts to make a joke (a rather tired joke by now, you might think) about male stupidity. This is how Woody has been accustomed to avoid the political correctness constabulary all his life, and he’s not about to try anything different now. In this case we have not one but two male doofuses, Mr Harrelson himself in the role of Vince Boudreau, a once potent middleweight now on the verge of being washed up, and his best friend and starring partner, um, sparring partner, Cesar, “El Califa” Dominguez (Antonio Banderas) who once had a title shot but walked into a right hand in the first round that seems to have put him out of contention for good.
A kind of corollary to this formula of glamorous male stupidity is that there must be a tough, glamorous, sexy woman around to put the men in their place while at the same time showing that she’s not above using them for her own sexual purposes from time to time. This is the lovely but savvy Grace (Lolita Davidovitch) who has been the lover of both men and who is still around to lend them money or sexual favors as required. This scenario is what strikes Mr Shelton, Mr Harrelson and, presumably, a fair number of suckers who will go to see this movie, as the very dernier cri of hip. At least I assume so, for I can’t see any other reason why anyone would want to go see it. The jokes are tired, Miss Davidovitch, though a handsome woman, is not in the front rank of Hollywood pulchritude anymore, and there is no plot to speak of.
A fight promoter, played by Tom Sizemore, finds himself without an undercard to a big fight in Las Vegas and so calls up Vince and Cesar with the idea that they will fight — wait for it — each other! I pause for your gasps of admiration. Most of the film consists of their verbal sparring in the car (Grace’s car) on the way to Vegas. Grace, I may have mentioned, gives them both a ride from time to time. This is all very tedious, but it is meant to be funny and touching and sad and even inspirational, but never quite manages to be any of these things. In the end (you don’t mind if I tell you the end do you?) the long awaited fight is inconclusive, but the heart that both fighters have shown promises them more and better fights in the future.
That’s it. On the way to Vegas, the two guys and a gal pick up Leah (Lucy Liu), another female, but the gesture in the direction of pairing the characters off isn’t followed through. Grace is naturally a bit of a hard puncher herself and Leah turns out to have a glass jaw — though not before she has serviced Vince as earnest of her own coolness, but for no other detectable reason. The moral focus of the film is always on Grace, who is naturally the superior of these two broken down pugs who continue to compete for her rather motherly affection. Her secret is that, for all her tartness of tongue and superiority of brainpower, she really does love them. Both. Though she won’t tell them that.
She does go so far as to tell each of them that he is the better lover — and that he is likely to lose to the other in the ring. This helps to keep them on their toes and demonstrates the female wiliness and cleverness that must always be a given to stupid men, though those of us who are slightly less stupid than Vince and Cesar may wonder why, if she is so smart, she still hangs around with these dunderheaded thugs. In the end, I assume, we are meant to admire her feminine soft-heartedness as much as the two guys’ masculine boorishness. More power to you if you can do it, but I can’t.