In Play It to the Bone, Vince (Woody Harrelson) and Cesar (Antonio Banderas), a couple of washed-up middleweight boxers, drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to fight in the undercard that precedes a nationally televised Mike Tyson bout. The car in which they make the trip -- it belongs to Grace (Lolita Davidovich), who's driving -- is a lime green 1972 Oldsmobile 442 convertible. I know this not because I'm cool enough to possess such knowledge of vintage automobiles but because the movie's press kit makes a big point of the fact. Truth to tell, it's not even accurate to call the car lime green; as Grace observes, it's sassy-grass green. A while back, there was something funky and resonant about the image of contemporary movie characters taking to the highway in classic wheels from the '60s or '70s. In a film like, say, Thelma & Louise (dusty green 1966 Thunderbird), that image established an undercurrent of visual irony: It said that while the people on screen may have been reaching for new attitudes, new ways of living, a part of them was still wedded to the romance of the past. In Play It to the Bone, writer-director Ron Shelton just seems wedded to the romance of past movies, including his own, and the result is a form of hollow hipsterism -- the ironic cliche.
This is the fifth of Shelton's insider sports films, which include Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, and Tin Cup, and with the exception of the sourball biopic Cobb, it is easily the least of them. Everything in Play It to the Bone is cute, lightweight, and overly patterned. Both Vince and Cesar have had relationships with Grace, and each of the men is haunted by a failed bout, seen in flashback, that KO'd their careers. The actors have spontaneity and verve, but the situations don't, and so we're stuck watching Harrelson and Banderas banter and cut up and poke at each other with too much blatant ''affectionate'' moxie. Both actors are likable to the bone, and, in a strange way, that's the problem with the movie. It's a boxing film with no conflictual punch.
What it does have is minuscule pat irreverence. Harrelson's Vince is a bruiser who likes the ladies and looks like a prison hooligan (phallic shaved head, tattoos on giant forearms), but he's also a Christian zealot who sees visions of Jesus. At a diner, the trio pick up a gold-digging party girl (Lucy Liu), and as she and Vince engage in some roughhouse sex, the soundtrack is flooded with gospel music. Banderas' Cesar is the sort of Spanish hothead who is generally portrayed, at least in movies, as obsessed with his heterosexual honor. In this case, though, he confesses that after losing a crucial fight, he became a ''fag'' for a year. (The word gets tossed around often enough to indicate that that's the main reason for this bit of character development.) Grace, meanwhile, plays one man off the other, cajoling the pair from friendship to rivalry. It's all so that when they finally get to Vegas, they'll have a great fight.
That's just what happens. Vince and Cesar have agreed to compete in the undercard for $50,000 apiece, and because the winner has been promised a shot at the middleweight title. But by the time they arrive, the longtime comrades are ready to go at it. Boxing becomes war, with each man battling for his redemption. Shelton takes his time in the ring, shooting and editing the match with what is by now the standard intense boxing-movie escalation: more blood, more body blows, more slo-mo, more close-ups of the grisly cut that opens over one fighter's eye. The ultimate irony, however, is that Shelton has made his characters so equal, so balanced in their penny-ante dilemmas, it's hard to have much stake in the outcome. By the end, the fight means everything to them and virtually nothing to us. C+
Play It to the Bone STARRING Woody Harrelson Antonio Banderas TOUCHSTONE RATED R 125 MINUTES