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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1992


Michael Ritchie
James Woods;
Lou Gossett Jr.;
Bruce Dern;
Oliver Platt;
Heather Graham;
Under 17 restricted

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In "Diggstown," James Woods explains the difference between a hustler and a con man. A hustler is always having to pull out of town before his angry victims get hold of him. But a good con man, he says, "doesn't leave until he wants to."

"Diggstown," starring Woods and Lou Gossett Jr., is a hustle and a con job. A hackneyed crowd pleaser about prison, scamming and boxing, it ought to be run out of town long before it wants to. It unleashes every tired cliche possible, from maniacal prison wardens to boxing bouts in which heart (not to mention star billing) beats overwhelming muscle every time. It's a wonder that director Michael Ritchie, a veteran of funny sports comedies, took up this fight in the first place.

Fresh from jail, blustery confidence man Woods smells his next score in Diggstown, a big gambling town. He racks up a bet with local crime boss Bruce Dern that his boxer can out-whup 10 of Diggstown's finest -- in one day. A powerful man with a passion for high stakes, Dern takes him on. Desperate Woods gets in touch with Gossett, a boxing veteran who's seen better days. After some wrangling (seems Woods crossed him before), Gossett finally agrees. The training begins, the fight date looms large and the purse keeps getting bigger.

There's nothing wrong with a lowbrow fight movie -- as the recent, enjoyable "Gladiator" proved. But "Diggstown," adapted from Leonard Wise's "The Diggstown Ringers," operates on such a punch-drunk level of believability, it's ridiculous. Gossett is a likable performer but, let's face it, he sorta sags in the middle. And that's before 10 fights with a set of beefy, steroidal opponents. You're supposed to believe paunchy Gossett can handle monsters Mike Tyson might have trouble with. Why not make the odds even more ridiculous? Instead of Gossett, Woods's champion could be a 7-year-old child with glasses, or an old granny with a cane or a boxing chihuahua!

Gossett, who has a strong ability for comedy, plays the fighter with a sullen, ironic deadpan as he sizes up the increasing bulk of his opponents. Dern, reuniting with director Ritchie after the beauty-pageant satire "Smile," gets better with time. As the genteel nasty, he still gives the shopworn role a special, weaselly boost.

Woods, after an early career of playing screen heavies and psychos, seems to be aiming for bland credentials. Recently he's been a surrogate parent, a formulaic cop and Dolly Parton's meek journalist-boyfriend. Now, he's a user-friendly con man, an amiable cheat fit for a sitcom series. It's enough to make you rent "The Onion Field." What a shame that, among these three performers, nothing better could have come of the experience. Would it have taken any more sweat to make a good sports comedy?

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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