By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 14, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

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. This is the fifth of director Ron 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 ”Bone” is cute, lightweight, and overly patterned.

Both Vince and Cesar have had relationships with Grace (Lolita Davidovich), 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. 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.