Film Rec: “Diggstown” (1992)

Diggstown 1992Diggstown isn’t the Muhammad Ali of cinema, but it sneaks up on you like a tricky left hook and leaves more of a mark than you might have expected. The tale is a simple one: a group of hustlers compete with a small-town tyrant to fix the fights in an epic boxing marathon and reap a huge payout. It’s one part sports and one part heist, with plenty of quips and action along the way.

The director Michael Ritchie might not be a household name, but he’s got a curious oeuvre of notable films, including The Bad News Bears, the Fletch movies, The Golden Child and A Simple Wish. It’s a pretty uneven lot, to say the least. Diggstown itself did not receive the greatest of reviews and underperformed at the box office, but it’s nevertheless received enough airtime on cable TV over the years to earn some belated appreciation.

Three reasons to watch:

  • Bruce Dern: James Woods as the cocky conman and Louis Gossett, Jr. as the gritty old prizefighter are comfortable in their familiar schticks and have great chemistry as our heroes, but the real standout is Bruce Dern as the corrupt city boss. He’s six feet of smug menace in a powder blue suit. Dern sinks his eerily long teeth into this role and doesn’t let go. It’s honestly one of my favorite cinema villains.
  • The hustles: The bulk of the plot concerns two dueling hustlers using every dirty trick in their arsenal, from the clever to the blunt, to get one up on the other guy. Like any heist or conman plot, it’s a pleasure to see rogues get away (or get caught) in their slippery schemes. The fact that both sides openly acknowledge what they’re doing turns all the shenanigans into an amusingly dignified affair.
  • The boxing: The central ironman boxing event sprawls over the second half of the film. The action injects a lot of kinetic energy into a genre that is usually very talky, while the variety of opponents and ringside predicaments keeps each scene fresh as the plot briskly moves forward. And besides, who doesn’t like watching old men beat up rednecks?

Don’t say I didn’t warn you that:

  • It’s fluff: Diggstown does not break new stylistic ground, nor does it have much substance beyond a few fleeting stabs at drama. It’s a light, enjoyable crowd-pleaser about crooks and punching and punching crooks. If you want something a bit more challenging, check out some of my headier recommendations.
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