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Play It to the Bone

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 14 January 2000

Written and Directed by Ron Shelton

 Starring Antonio Banderas, 
Woody Harrelson, Lolita Davidovich, 
Lucy Liu, Tom Sizemore, 
and Robert Wagner

Two grown men, best friends and romantic rivals, beat the crap out of each other for money.

It doesn't sound like much of a plot. But narrative intricacies have never much interested writer-director Ron Shelton, who has been upfront in the press about the conception and production history of his new film, Play it to the Bone. But if it's not elaborate, the film's story is efficient, at least on paper. As Shelton tells it, he proceeded in lieu of big-studio backing, by whipping out a script based on a true story, casting it quickly and shooting it even more quickly: the whole thing -- from story idea to wrap -- was done in six months.

You could call this process efficient. You could also call it daring or hip or "independent." but you could also call it practical. Shelton is no stranger to the ways of Hollywood,  he has lots of friends (many of whom show up in the final boxing scene, set in Las Vegas), and he has a realistic sense of what he can do well. He's been praised in the past for making entertaining and insightful movies about sports, in particular, male sports. With Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, Tin Cup, Cobb, the filmmaker has revealed the emotional and sometimes existential experiences of professional athletes, people often dismissed by the general public as overpaid and under-intelligent. Shelton likes his subjects -- even the ostensible monsters like Ty Cobb -- and makes it his business to display their complexities, make them vulnerable and arrogant, talented and troubled, and, on occasion, provide them with charismatic women partners (Rosie Perez as the Jeopardy winner in White Men, and of course, Susan Sarandon as a Walt Whitman fan named Annie in Bull Durham).

The new movie is both less and more of the same thing. That is, Play It To the Bone looks closely at power dynamics between macho guys and at the same time, can't seem to get its mind around the ways those dynamics both reflect and broad-based cultural pathologies. Its protagonists are two pro boxers, sparring partners in a beat gym in LA. Madrid-born Cesar Dominguez (Antonio Banderas) and good ol' boy Vince Boudreau (Woody Harrelson) are hard-bodied and tightly wired, anxious enough to get on with their stalled careers that they accept an invitation to fill in the suddenly vacant undercard fight at yet another Mike Tyson "Fight Of The Century." (The spots are vacant because the young contenders succumb to two of the more flagrant excesses of almost making it, drugs and fast cars.)  

It's not to Vince or Cesar's credit that they're so easy to tap, and that's what scuzzy promoters Joe Domino (Tom Sizemore) and his partner Artie (Richard Masur) are counting on. The boys say yes, even given the condition that they need to be in Vegas by 6pm that day, and there's no cash for airfare. Then they tap their ex-girlfriend Grace Pasic (Lolita Davidovich), for a ride in her 1972 Olds 442 convertible and natch, she says okay. Road trip!

This set-up puts the threesome in simultaneously close and moving quarters, beautifully accented by the car's lime-green paint job, for the bulk of the film's 124 minutes running time. Of course, they engage in conversations that reveal much about their characters and philosophies: Grace, who is Vince's ex when they begin and breaks up with Cesar while they're on the road, appears to be looking for a man who'll do right by her, that is, support her emotionally as well as financially. This doesn't quite explain her attachment to either Vince or Cesar, but it does establish her as a rather mundane man's version of a woman.

This point about Grace is underlined when, the trio picks up Lia (Lucy Liu, of Ally McBeal's "lesbian kiss" fame), who agrees to pay their truck-stop restaurant bill in exchange for a ride to Vegas. Lia's wily and lovely, quite aware of her evidently irresistible sexuality; that is, she doesn't so much walk around in her miniskirts as she slithers and entices. Liu is being well paid these days for playing the exotic Asian, as she's done it repeatedly (in addition to Ally McBeal, Payback and True Crime, and she's recently been cast as the "ethnic" Charlie's Angel). It's no surprise that she's winning acclaim playing characters at once stale and stunning, but the meanings of these characters, how they work for viewers, are hardly fixed. In interviews, Liu describes herself as expanding possibilities for Asian actors, but the case can be made that her roles reinforce all kinds of stereotypes.

Play It To the Bone treats Liu-as-Lia in a particularly asinine way: her central function seems to be bringing the threesome together after igniting fights among them. In the car, she shows off her body, smokes dope, inquires about harder drugs, flirts with Cesar, fucks Vince behind a gas station (on top of the dead tires), and then, worst of all, makes a crack about Grace's age. You may have seen the outcome of this episode in the movie's trailer: Grace punches Lia full in the jaw and sniffs, "I don't like you either!" Apparently, someone thinks this is a joke that will draw audiences., the sturdy white woman belting the hell out of the young, lithe interloper. It's not unlike the scenes that audience approval on Jerry Springer, but perhaps this is exactly what the filmmakers are anticipating, an identification with the "good" Grace, structured by a dramatic contrast with the pesky chick.

But for all the potential consternation to be derived from the Grace and Lia conflict, it is the men's relationship that exposes the film's curious conceptions of loyalty and morality. The bind of the guys' friendship (no drama if they're pals) is almost immediately eliminated, when they start fighting over Grace (that her name is so blatantly symbolic is not exactly to the film's credit). As the trip continues, they fight over whose career is in worse shape, who cheated when or whom, who's the best lover, who's the best fighter, not to mention Vince's visions of Christ, who appears to offer silent advice, which Vince then tries desperately to interpret (that you see Christ with him ensures that you won't judge him for such apparent lapses in sanity).

The topic that makes them most crazy with each other is, predictably, homosexuality. Since they spend so much of their lives in homosocial situations (like soldiers or football players), Vince and Cesar work overtime to assert their heterosexuality, narrating their bedroom exploits (here, by repeating to each other tales of their love for Grace) and adventures in “heteronormalizing” violence. Such exchanges are familiar territory for Shelton: his male buddies (Costner and Tim Robbins, Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, Costner and Cheech Marin), must confront and work through their anxieties while affirming their preference for the opposite sex, usually through displays of hostility and brutality, in varying degrees. This is the well-known way of the macho world, and Shelton's films have repeatedly illustrated its conventionality, conformity, and basis in fear.

In Play It To the Bone, the topic erupts when Cesar says that he has had a "homosexual experience" some years back, a confession that send Vince into spasms of identity crisis: if het buddy Cesar might acknowledge and act on same-sex desire, what does that say about: a) their friendship, and b) his assumptions about his own desires? Though the film seems to offer Vince's horror as comedy, it's hardly a stretch to make connections between this intimate moment (as they share histories and fears) and the ferocious Vegas bout that closes the film.

Neither scene resolves the men's relationship; instead, both muddle it immensely, by showing that their mutual trust only becomes visible to them as they violate it, by lying and emotional grappling, as much as by physically abusing one another. The fight is endless: slow motioned and bloody and repetitive, with the ostensible outcome being, the more they beat each other up, the more they realize that they really like each other. It's a long ride to get there.

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