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Nashville Scene The Fight of Your Life

Two new boxing movies pack a punch--outside the ring

By Donna Bowman

JANUARY 24, 2000:  It's very rare that a sports film is really about sports. Most often, it's about the people who play sports--the men (in most cases) who make a living or an obsession of the game. Pro boxing forms the backdrop for two new movies, Ron Shelton's comedy Play It to the Bone and Norman Jewison's biopic The Hurricane, both of which feature plenty of ring action and swapped blows. But the movies' real subject is the psychological makeup of the men throwing the punches; the real battles begin when the 10-count ends.

Shelton, the writer/director of Bull Durham and Tin Cup, has devised an almost foolproof formula for sports comedies: provide enough action to please fans, but surround it with enough character detail to satisfy non-SportsCenter types. The formula is successful, usually because Shelton likes to fill his lead roles with charismatic overachievers--like Woody Harrelson, whose film career got its real start with the director's White Men Can't Jump.

In Play It to the Bone, Harrelson plays a typically colorful Shelton sportsman: Vince Boudreau, a horny, stubbly, down-on-his-luck fighter who sees Jesus in truck stops. Antonio Banderas is Cesar Dominguez, his best friend and workout partner, who's forever haunted by the time he blew his title shot in Madison Square Garden. Along with Cesar's erstwhile girlfriend Grace (Lolita Davidovich, whose contrived character is too colorless to work as the viewer's surrogate), they're driving to Las Vegas to fight as last-minute replacements on a Tyson undercard.

It's the road-movie part of Play It to the Bone that really shines. On the scenic route to Vegas, Harrelson and Banderas engage in extended long takes of seamless patter that reaffirm both their acting skill and their star power. The pleasures of the larger story, and the sporting competition within it, don't compare with watching a sudden shadow of vulnerability cross Banderas' face as he reflects on his past or his future. For all the climactic bout's ham-handed violence and showy montage, it pales beside the moment when Grace asks Cesar about a contractor who's offered the fighters a construction job once their boxing days are done. "Vince wrote down his number," Cesar says; his small, trusting smile speaks volumes about the kinship fighters share when they're not pounding each other senseless in the ring.

The fight itself can't be anything but an anticlimax, yet Shelton pours it on. He probably gives some part of the audience what it wants, but the 10 rounds seem even longer when the director cuts them up into an interminable rope-a-dope repetition of hits, blood, punch-drunk hallucinations, nine-count resurrections, and ringside cameos. If the viewer has glommed onto what Shelton is really doing--evenly matching the heroes, to experiment with the fan's natural tendency to root for one competitor over another--s/he'll know how the fight has to come out. Fortunately, it's too late for Play It to the Bone to be ruined, even by the sordid spectacle of the sport itself.

Even further removed from the squared circle is Norman Jewison's The Hurricane. Here, boxing is merely the hook on which to hang a true but all too typically rendered story of crime and punishment. It's doubtful that anyone would have cared about the fate of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (played by Denzel Washington), convicted of murder and sentenced to three life terms, if he hadn't been a middleweight contender. But because of the fight game, his book The Sixteenth Round sparked protests, marches, and an unforgettable Bob Dylan tune in the '70s.

The screenplay, by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, is concerned with a later protest--this one led by a kid from Brooklyn (played by Vicellous Reon Shannon) and his three Canadian guardians. In an attempt to keep the 20-year saga and its shifting cast of characters manageable, the film uses a flashback structure to insert the Toronto contingent into the beginning of the story. Less successful is its effort to make a simple morality play out of the case's complex legal issues. Dan Hedaya is cast as a New Jersey detective who's had it in for Carter practically since birth, and the unmitigated, unmotivated evil of the racist cop never gets any further explanation. The filmmakers' fear of leaving any loose threads in the plot causes them to leave out all the messy stuff of reality that might give The Hurricane a ring of truth.

But Washington and Shannon, with their ability to show unsentimental emotion, rise above the film's artifice. In their performances, we see the connection between inner and outer freedom. Washington echoes Carter's prizefighting days in his curled shoulders and bowed arms; his posture is strikingly similar to Banderas' pose in Play it to the Bone. And that's appropriate. The heroes of The Hurricane and Play It to the Bone are good at being boxers; the message is that sometimes it's harder to be a man. --Donna Bowman


Man out of time

In the entirety of his big-screen career, Ralph Fiennes has never really played a contemporary character. 1998's The Avengers is arguably set in the present, but the TV show it's based on is from the '60s, and Fiennes' John Steed is willfully anachronistic. Strange Days was set in 1999, but it was made in 1995. The rest of his résumé reads like the itinerary for a time machine. Oscar and Lucinda: 1860s Australia. Quiz Show: 1950s New York. And he's made three visits to World War II: Schindler's List, The English Patient, and now Neil Jordan's adaptation of the Graham Greene novel The End of the Affair.

Fiennes seems to fit naturally into these roles, because he himself seems unstuck in time. His ability to find a continuum between desperate romanticism and chilly remove marks him as old school, as movie stars go: He fits best in parts that would've been played by Trevor Howard a half-century ago. As Greene's lovesick writer Maurice Bendrix, Fiennes is so at ease in The End of the Affair that he sets you at ease--even when the story compels you to question the divine justice of God.

The rest of Jordan's cast is just as capable. Stephen Rea plays Maurice's stuffy old friend Henry Miles; Julianne Moore plays Henry's wife Sarah, with whom Maurice had a torrid affair; and Ian Hart is Mr. Parkis, the detective whom Maurice hires to investigate her. That investigation forms the center of the film's non-linear story. As The End of the Affair opens, Maurice and Sarah's dalliance is over, for reasons unknown. When Henry tells Maurice that Sarah may be seeing another man, the bitter writer engages Parkis to follow her. As a result, he finds out not only what's behind her odd behavior, but what happened to end their own affair, and how cruel fate and the Almighty can be.

The End of the Affair is the second recent movie (after The Hurricane) to emerge from a powerful flashback-driven structure with almost half the movie remaining. The technique is not especially effective here, since the thrill of the film's first portion comes from untangling the knotty backstory; once that's done, what remains is too obvious. The picture on an assembled jigsaw puzzle may be pretty, but you wouldn't want to stare at it for a half-hour.

But if The End of the Affair ultimately delivers less than its gripping first hour promises, the blame may lie with the very person who holds our attention so raptly: the thorny, handsome Ralph Fiennes. By concealing the harshness of Greene's story within his icy reserve, he makes it palatable--maybe too palatable. He indeed puts the audience at ease in The End of the Affair, but it's worth wondering whether this story should leave us feeling relaxed. --Noel Murray


Cradle to grave

Cradle Will Rock may open with a bravura unbroken shot that's purest Touch of Evil, but you won't mistake Tim Robbins' boisterous agit-prop musical for an homage to Orson Welles. As portrayed by Angus Macfadyen, the young Welles comes across as a carousing dilettante among the (literally) starving artists of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project. It's a pretty dismissive portrait, especially coming from a fellow actor turned filmmaker--but that may be the point.

Welles is almost a bit player in writer-director Robbins' tribute to the socially conscious government-funded art of the 1930s--a tribute that ends as a eulogy, given the movie's pointed parallels to contemporary public-funding woes. Robbins' focal point is the embattled 1937 production of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, a socialist opera staged by Welles and producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) for the FTP. As the production teeters on the brink of disaster, the ambitious (if smart-alecky) script collapses the time frame to include pertinent true events both fore and aft.

These include the ill-fated patronage of Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) by Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), and the 1938 testimony of the FTP's Hallie Flanagan (the wonderful Cherry Jones) before the red-baiting HUAC committee. Susan Sarandon turns up to peddle the treasures of Italian art for Mussolini's coffers; Vanessa Redgrave's dizzy socialite keeps a comic-opera "performance artist" (Paul Giamatti) as a patronized pet. In the movie's E.L. Doctorow-like mix of history and invention, an actual pro-labor children's play called Revolt of the Beavers even becomes a plot point.

Juggling ingenues, demagogues, ventriloquists, philanthropists, and Fascists at screwball-comedy speed, Robbins crowds so many figures onto his canvas that he can't do much detail work: The movie's as broadly sketched as an editorial cartoon, with about as much depth. But in a dazzling finale, he advances the gutsy idea that abandoning the arts to corporate patronage turned artists into whores. What's more, he doesn't exempt himself from turning tricks. His chilling last shot may lay the corpse of a failed national theater at the feet of Disney's Broadway, but the last word belongs to his corporate bosses: "A Touchstone Release."

Maybe that edge of self-criticism explains the treatment of Orson Welles. Like Robbins, who banks on the commercial clout of his star turns in the likes of Arlington Road and Nothing to Lose, Welles bankrolled his personal projects (and sank money into his FTP productions) by taking gun-for-hire mershwork. Given the movie's other contemporary parallels, maybe Robbins sees Welles as his own stand-in. The irony is that a movie as brazen, provocative, and risky as Cradle Will Rock was made strictly on the dime of the corporate monsters at Disney--not the NEA. --Jim Ridley


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