As Ron Shelton had a good track record as the director of sports films and Woody Harrelson had the lead role, Play It to the Bone sounded like it was worth a shot.
With the reason release of the 2013 sports comedy Grudge Match, Play It to the Bone has a similar plot. But it doesn't stand up to the quality of Grudge Match because its focus is inconsistent and it doesn't really have the heart of a boxing movie.
Play It to the Bone wants to be a lot of things such as a sports drama, a buddy comedy and a road movie among other things. But Ron Shelton is unable to find the appropriate balance to make it work. It ends up dealing with romantic themes as well which are of little benefit to the film, and it doesn't supply enough laughs or strong characters to justify everything.
The script is clearly is not Ron Shelton's finest work. While the cast of the film manage to make sure that it works well enough and give it a true sense of realism, it does not have sufficient jokes to qualify as a comedy and it generally isn't interesting enough for it to be a drama. I mean the characters are simply uninspired and thinly sketched, so there is little value you can find with the film unless you have a particular liking for the actors in the role. I enjoyed the aspect of the script that dealt with homosexuality because it touched upon the stereotypes in a fairly decent comic manner and it explains how people are commonly defined by their sexuality if it is something other than heterosexuality. But aside from that element, Play It to the Bone has mostly a bland script with few memorable elements whatsoever. For a comedy, the jokes in the film are hard to really pick out because there is a distinct lack of humour and of fun in Play It to the Bone and it takes itself a bit too seriously. If Play It to the Bone wanted to be a legitimate boxing film, it shouldn't have implemented in road movie elements or so many attempts at buddy humour, but it just missed the mark.
The problem is that a lot of the film is dominated by its road movie elements and a lot of the film is made out of extensive periods of random dialogue sequences on the road, largely dominated by the character Grace who really is not an interesting aspect in Play It to the Bone. She gets arguably the most lines in the film, and while Lolita Davidovich plays the part out well with a fine line delivery, she gets annoying pretty fast. She doesn't really contribute anything to the film and just distracts from the focus on the main two characters in the film, so she is little more than a distraction. Her character deals some damage to the film, and it seems as if she is only present because Lolita Davidovich is married to writer-director Ron Shelton. Lolita Davidovich is stuck with a tedious, repetitive, unnecesarry character in Play It to the Bone and it seems like she was written solely so that Ron Shelton could give a sizable part to his wife, which means that Play It to the Bone is plagued by nepotism. She's ok, but her character overshadows Cesar Dominguez and Vince Boudreau in terms of screen time and character focus, and that is the real issue with Play It to the Bone. I could tolerate a lot of the film, but the fact that it is supposed to be about boxers and instead puts an excess of focus on a woman that both of them have once dated ends up being the true downfall of this film, moreso than the generic storytelling and lack of spirit.
Really, Play It to the Bone betrays what its poster promises by being way too little in focusing on boxing. The character don't train, they don't have practice fights, they just take a road trip on the way to one big boxing match. While the boxing climax in Play It to the Bone was an entertaining scene and revealed Ron Shelton's skill for creating sports scenes once again, the rest of the film doesn't have the same spirit that the fighting finale did. All in all, Play It to the Bone has some interesting moments but is simply rudimentary as a whole and the only consistently good aspects in it is the leading two actors.
Woody Harrelson's leading performance in Play It to the Bone manages to make the film worth the viewing. As well as putting up a hell of a fight as a boxer, Woody Harrelson injects his natural comedic spirit into the part and carries the entire film during his scenes. He delivers his lines with relaxed charisma during the right moments and dramatic tension during the others, and so his effort ends up being a very consistently entertaining one. Woody Harrelson fans may be disappointed about his quantity of screen time in Play It to the Bone, but the quality of his performance is undeniable.
And Antonio Banderas makes a capable foil. He's proved many times just how great he is as an action hero, so putting him into the role of a boxer is no challenge for him. He packs a great punch, and during the other scenes in the film he puts his natural charisma into his performance so that his role ends up spirited and even occasionally funny. Him and Woody Harrelson share an awesome chemistry because it has a sense of brotherhood to it which makes a connection between them. Even up against the comedic talents of Woody Harrelson, Antonio Banderas stands his ground and gives a memorable performance.
Lucy Liu instantly reveals what makes her a great casting decision when she enters the screen. Although he lines are cheaply sketched, she delivers them with a sense of seduction which sucks the viewers in. It is easy to be pulled into her charms because of how easily she executes them, and she uses the subtle sex appeal and natural charm which comes to her easily to a point of benefit in Play It to the Bone.
But despite the quality of the performances from Woody Harrelson, Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu, Play It to the Bone ends up too scattered in focus and ambition to settle on anything and is not a funny comedy, a strong sports film or one of Ron Shelton's best efforts because it only reveals the side to him that supports nepotism by giving most of the screen time to the unfunny Lolita Davidovich.