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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1992


Michael Ritchie
James Woods;
Lou Gossett Jr.;
Bruce Dern;
Oliver Platt;
Heather Graham;
violence and language

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"Diggstown," the latest sweet science crowd pleaser with James Woods and Louis Gossett Jr., represents Hollywood at its cynical, Pavlovian worst, and all the more so because of the considerable panache with which it has been pulled off. It's an ugly item, masquerading as good old-fashioned entertainment; a pernicious thing not worth doing, but done shamelessly well.

The film, which is about a master con man's ultimate con, is itself a shallow hustle. It's so desperate to get you up on your feet, cheering for the good guy's victory -- or the bad guy's humiliating demise -- that it will do anything to churn up your emotions.

The most depressing fact of all is that it seems to work. The preview audience I saw "Diggstown" with whooped and hollered and pumped their fists in the air like no other crowd of moviegoers I've ever seen. Yet, somehow, I never felt more demoralized. Is it possible that we've sunk this low?

What was all the shouting about? An ace con artist named Caine (Woods) gets out of prison and, with inside information supplied by his cellmate (Randall "Tex" Cobb), heads for Diggstown, Ga., to set up his big sting. Diggstown, it seems, is a hick town where the only thing anybody ever does is box. And bet. Caine has been stoking his bankroll, even in the joint, but to score big, he needs the help of a Miami gangster named Corsini (Orestes Matacena), who wears $5,000 shoes, no socks and, you guessed it, a ponytail.

Somebody stayed up late to come up with this guy.

As Woods plays him, Caine is supposed to come across as an irresistible scoundrel, a slightly gaudier version of the Paul Newman character in "The Sting," and he does a terrific job of smoothing over the rough edges of Caine's avarice. At last, Woods seems to have discovered how to vary the octane levels in his performances; there's nothing here of the relentless bug-eyed intensity he brings to nearly every role. Instead, he's the pure essence of nonchalant cool, the guy who has it all figured out to the last detail so far in advance that he doesn't need nerves of steel. All he does is stand around and try not to laugh while everyone does exactly what he'd thought they would. By legions, it's the actor's most winning -- and best -- performance.

What a shame it has to come in this thing. The man Caine baits his trap for is a gloating local tyrant named Gillon (Bruce Dern), who owns every inch of Diggstown and 99 percent of everybody in it. He's rich, he's ruthless, he's smart and he has powerful friends. And Dern plays him as if he cut his Southern Comfort with rat poison.

By masterly sleight of hand -- and some nifty undercover work by his sidekick (played by Oliver Platt) -- Caine suckers Gillon into betting that his nominee for the "most underrated heavyweight in history," "Honey" Roy Palmer (Gossett) can beat any 10 Diggstown men in a single day. The bet is too juicy for Gillon to pass up; it's also far too expensive for either man to lose, so both sides immediately start working around the rules to rig the match, paying fighters to dive for the cash and hiding aces up their sleeves.

It's at about this point that the movie, which until now has been only mildly offensive, crosses the line into genuine prurience. After Caine finds out that two poor black brothers are on Gillon's list, he pays them five grand to kiss canvas. But when the match begins and Gillon finds that his fighters have sold out, he puts the fallen brother up on a chair with a rope around his neck and threatens to lynch him if the other brother doesn't win his match. Though he fights his heart out, the older brother can't beat the more experienced Palmer, and so, rushing out of the ring, he runs down the hall and flings open the locker room door to find his brother hanging dead, a forged suicide note stuffed in his trunks.

Later, Gillon gets a punch in the jaw from the angry brother. I betcha that'll teach him.

Nothing is as insidiously evil as using a lynching as a mere plot device -- as a technique for manipulating an audience into hating a character so much that any punishment, no matter how excessive, is deserved and hungrily awaited. It's far more hateful than anything ever suggested by Ice-T or Sister Souljah.

The rest of the picture is only a notch higher. Gossett gives a loose, confident performance as a fighter past his prime but with just enough left in the tank to get it done, but the part doesn't allow him to do much more than react to Woods's grand schemes. And Platt does a grubby turn worthy of Robert Benchley. Still, most of director Michael Ritchie's energies are devoted to stirring up our blood with boxing scenes that grow increasingly (and endlessly) more gruesome as side bets mount and the drama intensifies. By the end, one fighter is knocking his opponent's jaw from one side of his face to the other while the audience screams for more.

But what are they screaming for? One con artist out-hustling another? One black man beating the stuffing out of another black man? They're cheering for the guy who staged the hanging to get his neck stretched a little. He doesn't, but wouldn't it have been delicious? I'm not sure where all this hate is coming from, but "Diggstown" is just further proof that even our worst movies reflect their share of grim reality.

"Diggstown" is rated R for violence and language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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