As a screenwriter and director, Ron Shelton has explored the competitive dynamic in male friendships via football (The Best of Times), baseball (Bull Durham), basketball (White Men Can’t Jump) and even golf (Tin Cup). Now he explores male bonding through that most intimate of sports: boxing.
In Play It to the Bone, former contenders Cesar Dominguez (Antonio Banderas) and Vince Boudreau (Woody Harrelson) are called out of obscurity as last-minute replacements in the undercard fight (i.e. the barely noticed opening act) for Mike Tyson’s latest big money mismatch. The film is basically a road trip – Cesar and Vince are driven from Los Angeles to Las Vegas by the woman they both love, Grace Pasic (Lolita Davidovich) – and a boxing match that pits these best friends against each other. It’s a deceptively simple setup: verbal sparring followed by the actual battle.
The bond between Cesar and Vince is one of mutual support entwined with a fierce competition. They both believe in the philosophy of winner takes all, whether the prize is Grace’s affection or a chance at the middleweight title. But Shelton sets up a delicious irony: Their power comes from the fact that they work as a team. Individually, each man has had his moment in the sun and was scorched by the encounter. It’s only by sticking together that they can triumph.
Playing characters written specifically for them, these actors wear their roles like a second skin. As the underappreciated Cesar, Banderas effortlessly blends machismo with vulnerability. Harrelson mines unexpected humor from Vince’s iconoclastic brand of Christianity (whose love-thy-neighbor ethos extends to a raucous sexual encounter with Lucy Liu’s instant-gratification junkie).
The biggest surprise is Lolita Davidovich, who has never been so confident or engaging onscreen. Grace pilots her "sassy grass green" Oldsmobile 442 convertible with the same determination she puts into hawking her wacky yet imaginative inventions. But it’s in Grace’s complex relationship with these two men that she shows the most ingenuity: By tweaking their competitive streaks, she only reinforces their deep bond.
Ron Shelton is an expert at portraying this specific realm of guydom, and in the loose and lively Play It to the Bone, he pares it down to its bare-knuckle essence.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.