October 14, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Diggstown (1992)

by Nick Schager

Diggstown [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Kevin James' UFC comedy Here Comes the Boom.]

It's hustler versus hustler in the main event of Diggtsown, Michael Ritchie's underrated 1992 boxing comedy (based on Leonard Wise's novel) about the ever-entertaining art of the con. In a small Georgia enclave known as Diggstown, due to its being home to legendary fighter Charles Macum Diggs (Wilhelm von Homburg), virtually everything is owned by John Gillon (Bruce Dern), a businessman in a light blue suit and flashing a giant, cocky smile who intends to soon hand the reigns of his empire over to son Robby (Thomas Wilson Brown). That plan, however, is rudely interrupted by the arrival of professional con man Gabriel Caine (James Woods), recently paroled and motivated by inside information about Gillon from a Diggstown-hailing inmate known as Wolf (Randall "Tex" Cobb) to visit the area in order to pull off a grand scheme. Caine's release from jail after helping another pal break out, and arrival in Diggstown with sweaty right-hand man Fitz (Oliver Platt), is dramatized by Ritchie with a whip-smart verve that forces intense audience attention just to keep up with the story's particulars, which only slowly come into clear focus. Having had Fritz fleece Robby and his pals of their cash and cars, Caine ropes Gillon into his ruse: for a purse of escalating value, Caine wagers that his fighter, 48-year-old "Honey" Roy Palmer (Louis Gossett Jr.), can knock out any ten men, in immediate succession, in the county.


Predicated on a feat previously performed by Diggs, who's now a wheelchair-bound shell of a man who sits on his porch staring off into the distance, that bet affords both men the opportunity to scheme and swindle to their black hearts' content. And in turn, it allows both Woods and Dern to chew scenery with shit-eating grins permanently affixed to their faces. Diggstown revolves around Woods' smarmy machismo, which it firmly establishes in an early, hilarious sight gag in which his Caine exits the big house and into a car driven by a beauty, ignores her so that an on-looking guard exclaims, "Not even a kiss on the cheek? What a stud!", and then salutes said guard and drives away as the woman bends over to orally service him. Caine is the epitome of calm, composed manliness, always in control and one step ahead of the game, and thus part of the beauty of Ritchie's film is its use of myriad plot threads to mask the fact that triumph is ultimately preordained. Those include Caine's relationship with Wolf's fetching sister Emily (Heather Graham), the numerous contenders whom Caine and Fitz attempt to bribe and/or sabotage ahead of the big fight, and Caine's relationship with Palmer, dragged out of grifter retirement after Caine cannily plays off the pugilist's love of the scam.


That Caine is in the South trying to screw a wealthy white businessman out of his fortune through a plan involving a black man certainly lends Diggstown racial undercurrents, albeit ones that Ritchie addresses with a light touch. Overt racism only manifests itself when one adversary calls Palmer the "n" word, which lands him a brutal gut punch and then some mocking spanking in front of a cheering audience. Otherwise, suggestions of racial discord come from the sight of nooses, of minority fighters being bullied (and worse) by Gillon, and a bit of goofy nonsense between Caine and Palmer in the ring. Needing to give Palmer a boost while he goes toe-to-toe with a 283-pound behemoth known as Tank, Caine quips "Remember—you're black!", and after Palmer expresses annoyed confusion over how that'll help him, Caine justifies his inane motivational speech with, "I don't know. I'm trying to inspire you. It's a Roots kinda thing"—levity that speaks to the film's canny desire to address its obvious black-white dynamics not via leaden drama but, rather, through ridiculous comedy.


The last film Ritchie (The Bad News Bears, Fletch) helmed before 1994's Chevy Chase-Jack Palance disaster Cops and Robbersons sent his career into an unrecoverable nosedive, Diggstown has an overarching spryness that makes up for its clunkier moments, like a Rocky-esque training montage, anything to do with the fighters whom Gillon entices to take a shot at Palmer, and a finale in which everyone eventually gets a turn sticking it to Gillon. The director is immeasurably aided by a trio of ace lead performances, with Dern oozing sly kingpin evil, Gossett Jr. exuding working-class grit and honesty, and Woods cracking wise with an egotism that's all-consuming. His Caine is an archetype through and through, and yet in the actor's hands, he remains a hilariously devious character working toward simultaneously selfish and selfless ends—as well as a believable figure of lifelong criminality, as epitomized by his frustrated been-here, done-that exclamation, after narrowly avoiding death by noose, "I hate being hung. I just HATE it."

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Posted by ahillis at October 14, 2012 8:35 AM