"Play It to the Bone," Ron Shelton's flat-footed comedy about a pair of would-be Rockys, is as lame as one of Mike Tyson's one-round pay-for-view bouts. If only it were over as fast.
Vince (Woody Harrelson) and Cesar (Antonio Banderas), best friends and sparring partners, never expected to get into the ring again, but they're contacted by a promoter with a last-minute proposition: If they can be in Vegas to fight each other in the undercard that night, they will split $100,000 and the winner will get a shot at the middleweight title. The promoter and his cronies are too cheap to fly them to the Disneyland of Sin, so the fellows hit the road in a vintage convertible piloted by Grace (Lolita Davidovich), their hardhearted mutual love interest.
Grace decides to take the scenic route instead of the freeway to give herself more time to make sure they're good and mad by the time they step into the ring. Much squabbling ensues as they drive through the dullest scenery this side of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Grace and the guys don't have characters but they do have eccentricities to spare, and Shelton exploits them for all they are worth. Unfortunately, being eccentric doesn't make you interesting, because these three are as dull as the decor in a Motel 6. Vince "sees" Jesus, Grace invents and tries to finance impractical gizmos, and Cesar experimented with homosexuality after he was clobbered by a gay slugger. Oh, they're wacky!
Nothing changes until Grace pulls into the entrance of the gaudy Vegas hotel. There to greet them are the usual boxing-movie crumbums: the grasping hotelier and fight sponsor (Robert Wagner), his crooked lawyer and a brace of goons who force the illiterate Vince and Cesar to sign contracts they don't really understand. The two are dumb, but they know they've been had. But these palookas aren't fighting for money--they're fighting for pride.
After much buildup, the bell finally rings and the pair proceed to beat each other bloody. They look like a couple of flank steaks by the time it's all over. And are we ever given a view of it--up close and slo-mo. While the men do throw some mighty convincing punches and there are some powerful moments in this increasingly savage sequence, the fight becomes almost as tedious as the road trip.
Shelton must know that in reality, the referee would have stopped this fight in the second round. The director usually strives for authenticity: "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump" offered witty insiders' views of baseball's minor leagues and pickup basketball. And the stories were as quirky and insightful as his characters were funny and desperate.
Though Harrelson and Banderas make credible fighters, let's face it--friends don't let friends fight punch-drunk.
Play It to the Bone (125 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, violence and sexuality.