This Epic Battle
Two grown men, best friends and romantic rivals, beat the shit 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 not been shy in talking about the conception and production history of his new film, Play it to the Bone. As Shelton tells it, he proceeded with the project absent major-studio funding; instead, in search of some “honesty,” he quickly wrote a script based on a true story, quickly cast it and then quickly shot it. The whole shebang from story idea to wrap was done in six months.
You could call this process efficient. You could call it daring or hip or “independent.” You could also call it practical. In any case, Play It To the Bone seems a function of Shelton’s general attitude toward the biz. No stranger to the pressures of Hollywood, he has often resisted big-stakes hoopla in favor of offbeat topics and treatments (for examples, Blaze or Cobb, both engagingly imperfect movies about grand but flawed real-life figures). Still, he has friends in Tinseltown (some of whom, like Rod Stewart and Tony Curtis, make cameo appearances in this film’s climactic boxing scene, set in that other another glitz-center, Vegas), and a realistic sense of what he can do well. This includes making entertaining and insightful movies about sports, in particular, male sports, with emphasis on the anger, anxiety, courage, and sexuality that infuse such sports.
In his earlier sports pictures Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Tin Cup, and Cobb Shelton 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 an apparent monster 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 scheduled 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, but their desperation is exactly what scuzzy promoters Joe Domino (Tom Sizemore) and his partner Artie (Richard Masur) are counting on. Indeed, 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 getting paid these days for playing the Exotic Asian Chick, 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 youngster.
This (reductive) generational conflict also informs the film’s central relationship, between Cesar and Vince. This would be seem to be the place where the film lays bare the cultural impositions on men’s friendships, their strained loyalties and moralities. According to generic decrees road movie, buddy movie, fight movie this friendship must be fraught and volatile before it can be secure. This occurs in their initial fighting over Grace (her name is so heavy-handedly symbolic that it starts to feel like a hammer slam every time someone says it). And 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 occasionally appears (say, at a truckstop) 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, as boxers, 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 or their experiences with other, less respectable girls) and adventures in heteronormalizing violence. Such exchanges are familiar territory for Shelton: his “buddies” (Costner and Tim Robbins, Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, Costner and Cheech Marin) confront and sorta work through their uneasiness by affirming their preference for the opposite sex, and by 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 chum Cesar might acknowledge and act on same-sex desire, what does that say about: a) their friendship, and b) Vince’s assumptions about his (or anyone else’s) own desires? What if gay desire isn’t abnormal, but part of a continuum of yearning and resisting, looking and not looking, imagining and shutting down? What if it’s inherent in the vaunted arena of sports, a.k.a. public male contact, of which boxing would be a if not the prime example? 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 apprehensions) and the ferocious Vegas bout that closes the film, so protracted and painful that it is described by one attending reporter as “this epic battle.”
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 conclusion being, the more they beat each other up, the more they realize that they really, really like each other. It’s a long ride to get here.