Writer/director Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump") specializes in comedy/dramas crafted squarely with the sports-bar set in mind. But the boxing action in his new "Play It to the Bone" is merely the tag to an interminable session of on-the-road bickering between aging pugilists Vince Boudreau (Woody Harrelson) and Cesar Dominguez (Antonio Banderas) -- an empty-headed exchange that's the first truly excruciating moviegoing experience of the new century.
Old friends whose respective careers have seen better days, Boudreau and Dominguez find their underlying rivalry deepening as they cross a strip of Southwestern highway on their way to a bout in Las Vegas. They've been offered the chance to fight each other for big bucks on the undercard of Mike Tyson's latest one-round sham. The catch? They have to make it to Vegas by 6 p.m. the same day.
The journey actually seems to take longer on the screen than it would in real life. Over the course of an alleged few hours, the infantile Boudreau and Dominguez vie for the affections of their redheaded driver, Grace Pasic (Lolita Davidovich), an untamable firebrand who dated both of them at various times. They debate training regimens over leisurely truck-stop breakfasts. They whine over the tragedies that sent their ring careers into their current doldrums. And they take the time to pick up -- and Boudreau to copulate with -- a hitchhiking urchin named Lia (Lucy Liu, branching out from her Ally McBeal role as a prissy, rude egotist to assume the fresh challenge of portraying a slutty, rude egotist). All that's missing from the slow-motoring activity is a rousing game of "I Spy With My Little Eye."
Harrelson does his usual hick schtick as a born-again wrecking machine who loves Jesus and the temptations of the flesh with equal fervor. Continuing his seemingly irreversible career downslide, Banderas allows himself to become an easy target for Shelton's playground-level humor. Dominguez's cartoonish Latin passions ebb and flow; he occasionally wanders off at rest stops to spout emotional monologues in mile-a-minute Spanish. The actor meets the stereotype head-on, exhibiting as much depth of character as Señor Wences' fist.
Watching these clowns murder each other in the film's climax is our right, not a luxury. But by the time the bell finally sounds, we're too worn out to enjoy it. Two hours trapped in a car with the Torture Twins has sent the hardiest of us down for the count.