Dir. by Michael Ritchie - 1 hr. 38 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"Diggstown" is one of only two movies I've ever been to where the audience spontaneously applauded at the end of the film (the other being "Karate Kid"). It wasn't a special screening, it was just a random showing in a suburban multiplex way back when. It's not that this is an Oscar candidate, but the ending was just so satisfying. But it's been a while, and the question is whether time has been kind to this film.
Gabriel Cane (James Woods) is a conman, and when we're introduced to him, he's helping another inmate escape from a county prison in Georgia. He's about a week away from having served his time, but already has another big con brewing. The target is Diggstown, a boxing-obessed small town (the town being named after a legendary boxer who lives there, Charles Macom Diggs), and more specifically, the man who runs the town, John Gillon (Bruce Dern). Gabriel's partner, Fitz (Oliver Platt), sets the hook by hustling the locals and agreeing to a bet that seems undo-able: one boxer defeating ten men in one day.
"Diggstown" straddles an interesting line: it's half swindle, half sports movie. Most sports movies are obsessed with underdogs fighting against long odds, and if the idea of fixing contests ever comes up, it's viewed in almost taboo terms. The one thing that sports fans will not abide is the notion that what they're watching is anything but a fair contest. Here, fight fixing (albeit not on a huge, televised stage) is acknowledged, expected, and not entirely condemned. What this plot hinges on is not whether or not Honey Roy Palmer (Louis Gossett, Jr.) can defeat ten Diggstown men, but whether or not John Gillon or Gabriel Cane is better at fixing fights. This is all upfront in the story, and we're being asked to root for someone who undermines the spirit of competition.
This dynamic works for a number of reasons. First, James Woods does a good job of mixing his blatant manipulations with oily charm. Also, his character is portrayed as having some sort of morals - a point of contention between Cane and Palmer is that Cane threw in the towel in a previous cash boxing match. Furthermore, there's a early scene in the prison between Cane and Wolf (Randall "Tex" Cobb) that hammers home that Cane is an ethical employer; even though Wolf is in the prison infirmary due to losing a prison fight which serves as a cover for the aforementioned prisoner escape organized by Cane, he's still grateful for the opportunity to make some real money, an opportunity no one else had afforded him. Successfully juxtaposed against Woods' character is Bruce Dern's. Dern's John Gillon is a monster parading as a southern gentleman; he swindled the entire town out of their possessions by fixing Diggs' last fight (that's a story on its own), and will stop at literally nothing in order to keep it. There's nothing likable about Gillon, which is both great acting and necessary in order to get an audience behind someone who is also a criminal.
Once "Diggstown" turns into a sports film (all ten fights are represented in the film), both Cane and Gillon keep upping the odds, until everything's on the line. Director Michael Ritchie doesn't offer much in the way of visual flair (this could pass for a TV movie if you didn't know better); you won't find much in the way of excessive editing, special effects, or abuse of slow-motion here. But he does pay attention to details. There are at least a couple of things that seem like odd things to focus on early in the film, if you think about it at all, but end up playing into finish. The one that's not a massive spoiler, and might come off as a minor plot point, is over Gabriel Cane's not wearing any socks. It shows that Cane is willing to get the details right in order to play a character that Gillon and company would despise and instinctively underestimate - it's a douchey big-city high-roller thing, and would make Cane an irresistible target to small-town Gillon. In a later scene, right before someone knocks at the door, Cane is shown tending to the blisters he has on his feet, since he normally does wear socks. It's so minor, Cane could have been doing literally anything in his room, but the details add up over the course of the movie.
And that ending. I'm not going to ruin it, but like the detail about Cane's socks, the big developments at the end are call-backs to things that have already been established in the film. There's no magic development that falls out of thin air - thinking back, you can see exactly where the twists have come from. It's rock-solid storytelling, and takes "Diggstown" to a decent film with a bunch of actors who would go on to bigger things (both Heather Graham and Jim Caviezel have roles, too) into a pretty darned good movie. Sure, when you see the boxers with their shirts off, you're going to be very aware that this is a film from a different era, and visually it's nothing special, but a truly good ending is something to value and appreciate.
3.5 / 5 - TV