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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Diggstown (1992)

Written by Steven McKay, based on the novel The Diggstown Ringers by Leonard Wiseman
Directed by Michael Ritchie

James Woods:  Gabriel Caine
Louis Gossett, Jr.:  "Honey" Roy Palmer
Bruce Dern:  John Gillon
Oliver Platt:  Fitz
Randall "Tex" Cobb:  Wolf Forrester
Heather Graham:  Emily Forrester
Benny "Jet" Urquidez:  Referee

A friend of mine that just had surgery with a three-week recovery period got a bag full of DVDs and graphic novels from me to help pass the time while his thorax healed. He told me that he came to the realization that I like stories about punching. I never really noticed, but he's completely right (although I also like stories about giant monsters, whether or not they punch anything, and I have the occasional weakness for movies about kicking). Looking over my review archives I see plenty of art movies, independent films, ripoffs of big hits and mad scientists but it's been quite some time since I delved into a story about punching. Time to fix that oversight.

And while I do certainly like a story where matters are settled with fists, I really don't have a huge amount of patience with sports movies. Part of it is just that I've never found any sport to be interesting. Part of it is that sports movies tend to be incredibly formulaic (although so are slashers and romantic comedies; come to think of it, I'm not a big fan of either of those genres). I can make an exception for something like Slap Shot or its imitators, but that's a mini genre of its own and one that tends to be in opposition to the story of clean-cut athletes being great at stuff on the sportsball field. Why do I dig this one? Because it has a greasily charismatic antihero set against a total son of a bitch and because watching Louis Gossett, Jr. pummel rednecks for half an hour or so is a total delight.

But before we get to that infinitely satisfying third act, we've got to introduce all the characters and the setting and turn the key on the clockworks of the plot. The film starts in a prison in rural Olivair County, Georgia, with every con (and guard) watching two muscular criminals beating each other up in a ring of cheering thieves and murderers. A weaselly little guy tucks ten thousand dollars (in a cigarette pack) in Gabriel Caine's pocket and they sneak off while everyone's distracted by the fisticuffs. The guards might have been perfectly happy to watch the beatdown but the warden is clever enough to want to know what's going on--Minoso Torres, a fearsome con, had a dispute with Gabriel Caine; Caine's cellmate Wolf Forrester stepped in to defend him. All perfectly reasonable within the society of testosterone-poisoned criminals, but the warden thinks something's fishy because Caine's not dumb enough to pick fights with convicts twice his size. Turns out the warden's instincts are on the money:  Caine has figured out a complicated but effective way to get out of the prison, and while all eyes are on the fight he sneaks the weaselly dude out (making the guy wear a blindfold so that if he's caught, he can't spill any details about how he escaped--which helps establish that Caine figures out all the angles).

After the fight Caine visits his cellmate in the infirmary and they have a discreet talk about whether or not the escape went through; Wolf also hints at a larger scheme in effect between the two men. And during a second, much more stressful talk, the warden tells Caine that he knows who is behind the previous day's escape even if he can't prove it (to try and rattle Caine he points a loaded gun at him and fires on an empty chamber before putting a round in the wall about an inch or two left of Caine's head. Among the expositionary tidbits dropped here:  Caine has gotten five people out of the prison over the last several years, and he's due to be released the next week. He talks things over about the escape very, very discreetly with his visiting-from-the-outside partner Fitz while playing cards in the yard (and getting out-cheated, which ticks Caine off more than the warden shooting at his head). Then they move on to new business, which involves Fitz saying he's seen all the boxers in a little mapspeck in Georgia named Diggstown, and that "Roy" won't have any problems beating any of them down. Caine tells Fitz to set the hook, and to do things exactly according to the plan that Caine's laid out.

Fitz agrees to do things just like he's supposed to, but also thinks that even if their plan succeeds, they'll be lucky to get out of Diggstown alive. Caine replies with his mission statement:  "A hustler has to get out of town as quick as he can, but a good con man? He doesn't have to leave until he wants to". Best of luck, multiple felons!

That night Fitz drives up to a redneck dive bar in a gigantic overcompensating thing that looks like an SUV mated with a pickup truck and tried to convince all the other cars that it wasn't losing its hair. In the bar, a weedy little goof named Corny Robbins introduces him around to all the beefy farmers playing cards, shooting pool and drinking like fish. The local alpha male steps in to belittle Fitz and asks if he's any good at poker instead of just doing card tricks. Fitz demurs, saying that he's too good of a player to go up against the Diggstowners (while also saying he's from Cleveland, the most boring of Yankee towns). The alpha jock sneers and tells Fitz to sit down and start playing, which he does after politely warning everyone that he's going to take all their money.

He takes all their money. There's a montage of Fitz raking in chips and Oliver Platt's giant, grinning, sweaty face filling the screen as all the other players realize that he's actually as good as he said he was (and they can't give up on the game because they'll lose face in front of their idiot friends). While virtually everyone in a certain age bracket is losing money to Fitz in the bar, Robby Gillon and his friend go outside to admire Fitz's truck before Robby takes a meeting with his dad in the Diggstown boxing arena. Turns out John Gillon is the boss of the town and he wants to make sure his son will have a smooth time of it when it's his turn to run a farming community like his own private fiefdom. There's some genuine love there between John and Robby, which the older man demonstrates by revealing his "you're next in line to run this place" gift to his son, a perfectly restored 1958 Corvette.

Back at the prison, Caine's packing up his stuff prior to his release; Wolf wants him to take one of his denim shirts back to Diggstown so his dogs can smell it (he's worried that they miss him). Caine refuses at first because whatever he has cooking up for Diggstown will go a lot easier if nobody knows he and Wolf know each other (and Forrester specifically mentions a sister who still lives there). Gabriel relents and there's a childlike look of relief on the gigantic tough con's face (it's a small part, but Cobb really commits to it). Caine exits the prison with a great dirty sight gag and makes his way to the mansion of crime guy Victor Corsini; he tells the mobster that he's got a half-million-dollar plan cooking but he needs a trusted criminal to hold the money when he starts working the bets. Corsini wants to know where Gabriel's going to get five hundred grand the day after he gets out of prison, and Caine hits him up for a loan. Corsini agrees, at least partly out of respect for the novelty of the request, but also lets Caine know that if he loses the money he's going to forfeit his life shortly thereafter.

Caine makes his way to Diggstown, parking in Gillon's space out front of the arena and sitting in the mayor's seat (and putting up a very convincing front of innocently transgressing, which gives Gillon and his tame sheriff a chance to throw their weight around at him). They take one look at the slick-dressed (for 1992) out of towner with a New York accent and no socks, and decide to make his life miserable. Caine folds instantly and walks out rather than making a fuss, but also predicts who's going to win the match and tells Gillon he'd bet a thousand dollars on it. Gillon ups it to two thousand and then orders Caine's pick to take a dive (making a little show of it, straightening his tie and giving the thumbs-down). None of the other people in the arena bat an eye, which tells Caine (and the audience) how much Gillon is used to getting his own way.

While that's going on, Fitz has entered a strange new zone of inebriated gambling hilarity; after cleaning everyone out at the poker table he switches to pool. The alpha jerk wants to win his money back before Fitz passes out (he's not a thief and he won't roll an unconscious man to recoup his losses, so he's not an utterly irredeemable shit). Frank the jerk wants to play for three hundred bucks a game and Fitz ups the bet tenfold, telling Robby that he's also willing to bet his steroidal Ford Extension against his brand new vintage Corvette. Robby might be the son of the most powerful pillar of the community but he's callow enough to let Frank guide him into making the bet and staking his car. Both men settle on sinking an entire frame of pool balls for time; Robby runs the table in 79 seconds, which is really good. But even after drinking literal gallons of beer Fitz is better at it and beats his time by two entire seconds. Gillon is ashen, not just because he only had that car for a few hours but because he's got to tell his father that his gift just got handed to a sweaty boor on a whim. Which the elder Gillon will be finding out about momentarily, because Corny is running across the street (in a shot that reveals the bar and the arena are about 20 yards away from each other) to tell John Gillon about the bet.

All that's left now is for Frank to threaten to beat the shit out of Fitz for hustling everyone--which leads to Oliver Platt's wonderful explanation that he told everyone ahead of time that he was going to beat them like a drum and they didn't listen, so they have no right to be mad and even less right to accuse him of cheating them. During his soliloquy about whether or not everyone should have paid attention to him when he said he was going to outclass them, Fitz insults the boxer Charles Macum Diggs, whose portrait adorns one wall of the bar. Frank takes that as an opening to deck Fitz (since that lets him look like the aggrieved party in front of his friends while still beating on someone who isn't in any shape to fight). Frank tells Fitz that Diggs beat five men in a single day while training and challenges the woozy, gut-punched gambler to name anyone else who could do that. Fitz says "Honey" Roy Palmer was up to the task, which is not exactly a name to conjure with in this bar. In fact, none of the boxing fans have ever heard of the dude. That doesn't stop Fitz from claiming that Palmer could beat any ten Diggstown men in a single day and putting ten grand up against a thousand from another bettor as a way to lend a little gravity to his statement.

So when John Gillon walks in and offers to bet ten thousand against Fitz's hundred grand and Fitz agrees, suddenly shit gets real. It gets incredibly real when Gillon mentions that he was Charles Macum Diggs' manager back in the old days. And even more so when Gillon pulls out a money clip stuffed with hundreds and demands that Fitz pay up his hundred grand on the spot (giving him credit for his son's car and the gigantic rig outside) or forfeit. Things look pretty bleak for Fitz until Gabriel Caine speaks up and offers to cover the remaining fifty thousand dollars; he and Fitz act as if they don't know each other and Gillon undoubtedly figures that Caine's pissed off at the earlier loss to try and job him for ten grand. Caine, acting the high roller, announces that the local sheriff isn't trustworthy enough to hold the money for this bet and asks if Gillon knows Victor Corsini, the Miami gangster. Turns out Corsini has a reputation as an utterly trustworthy criminal for this sort of thing. Gillon declares the fights will start in exactly two weeks and Caine says he'll return to work out the precise fight rules in a couple of days.

The next morning Fitz looks like thirty-one flavors of hell. To help with his performance, Caine gave him some pills that neutralized the alcohol in his system the night before, but they didn't do anything for the hangover. Fitz's condition is not improved at all when Caine lets it drop that not only doesn't he know what kind of shape Palmer's in right now, but that he hasn't even told the boxer that the bet has been in the works. He tells Fitz to give him a ride to the airport so he can go find Palmer and talk to him; the younger man is too busy throwing up out of terrified and hungover misery to help much.

Down at a YMCA boxing gym in Texas, former contender "Honey" Roy Palmer is a youth coach--the job doesn't pay much (and his house has an interstate yards away from the front lawn) but he gets to work out for nothing and he takes genuine pleasure in being some kind of positive role model for the kids who spar there. That's not to say he wouldn't like a big fat payday after beating up some hicks who think they know how to box, but he certainly doesn't want one if it means dealing with Caine's bullshit ("I'm not trying to be mad at you--I am mad at you."). I can't really say that I blame him, either--there's a fight back Moline where Caine threw in the towel because he thought Palmer was really, really hurt and they wound up missing out on a $92,000 purse. That's a heck of a handbag, and I'd be mad if I didn't get one of those. And I don't even know how to box. Caine folds immediately and walks out the door, telling Palmer that if he's not interested, there's no point in bothering him with a pitch. As justifiably angry as he might be, Roy isn't quite willing to say goodbye to his old partner forever after a two minute conversation so they make plans to get together that evening for a no-business talk.

After a really, really uncomfortable dinner at the Palmer household Caine leaves without mentioning the Diggstown fight at all. Palmer can't let it rest and calls Gabriel at his hotel room (Mrs. Palmer:  "Who are you gonna call at this hour?" Honey Roy:  "People who are up at this hour.") Roy's wife lets him know in no uncertain terms that Caine is using everything he knows about his old partner to manipulate him into fighting again. Palmer obviously figured that out for himself--he's far from stupid--but he's not quite willing to let Victor Corsini kill Caine just because he'd rather sulk than punch people. The pair goes back to Diggstown so that Palmer can train and Caine can do everything in his power to fix the matches in Team Grifters' favor.

Caine's going to have his work cut out for him, though--the Diggstown chamber of commerce (which is John Gillon, the sheriff, a banker and an old dude whose job is never defined) have dug up old boxing record books that list "Honey" Roy Palmer's career. He's 48 years old, he hasn't fought a recorded boxing match since 1972 (two decades before the movie came out) and he had a 34-2 record with thirty-one knockouts. The only two fights he lost were to the same dude--someone called Hammerhead Hagan who beat him by decision once and TKO once. I know a tiny, tiny bit about boxing but the fact that Palmer never got knocked out in his entire career impresses the hell out of me. John Gillon is smart enough to realize that twenty years past the end of his career or not, Palmer is absolutely not someone to be underestimated.

Back with the Palmer crew, they've found a farmer who hates John Gillon and who still owns his own land--everyone else in town bet heavily on Diggs' last bout and lost out hugely. And it turns out that Diggs' former manager was rich, smart and connected enough to buy up land from broke and desperate people, so he owns virtually every square foot of Diggstown itself and Olivair County, where Diggstown resides. Turns out it pays to skip a boxing match and go fishing instead. This farmer has Diggs' old sparring ring in a disused barn fixed up and would really, really like to see Gillon lose that bet. Diggs himself is a wheelchair-bound invalid since that last fight; it's a risk fighters face. He's got a mansion that his fight proceeds paid for and stares out at the world from the fog of his mental state.

At the boarding house in town, Caine takes Wolf Forrester's shirt out to say hi to the gigantic ferocious dogs in a fenced-in back yard enclosure.  He has a meet-cute with Wolf's sister Emily while she cleans up the basement apartment for a new tenant; it soon becomes obvious that she got the looks and the smarts in their family. She also misses her brother, realizes pretty much instantly that Caine is trying to rig something for the fight (since Wolf is the toughest person in the county and coming out of jail in a week or so, just in time for the big donnybrook) and hopes that he's not trying to set Wolf up for anything dangerous. Caine really, really hopes that Emily doesn't tell anyone else about him knowing Wolf and she doesn't tell him she'll snitch him out. But she doesn't say she's going to keep that secret either, so he's got a brand new source of anxiety.

The talks have broken down at the fight-rules meeting, with Gillon's minions and Fitz unable to agree on the time span for the fights, the number of rounds, the weight of the gloves or really any issues at all. Gillon lays down the law:  For the purposes of the bet, "Diggstown" is Olivair County. Caine counters that a day is twenty-four hours. Gillon proposes a counter-negotiation--his son Robby and his son's friend get to wear headgear because they're patently not in Palmer's class and he doesn't want them risking permanent injury. In exchange for that, the fights will occur over a full 24 hours. He's absolutely not willing to budge on the boundaries of Olivair County, though; everyone in that county counts as a Diggstown man. Caine counter-offers the counter, by saying that anyone who can prove they live in Olivair County that day is a Diggstown man, which means Gillon can't sneak in a better fighter over the next week and a half while nobody's looking.

Time for a training montage! Palmer puts his body through its paces (including the obligatory wood-chopping moment) while Gillon tests everyone in Diggstown who wants a shot at winning the bet for him. Gillon's not taking any chances, though. That weedy little twerp from the bar who introduced Fitz to Frank and the other jerks, Buster, is spying on Roy and marking down his stats; he's just clocked him at a seven-minute mile when Caine walks up and suggests writing down a worse time by about a minute and a half. The great thing about using spies and sneaks is that someone who knows you're doing that can tell you exactly what he wants you to know, and whoever's listening to the secret reports has to trust his sources. Take that, Gillon.

Corny, the twerp in league with Palmer and Caine, is their secret weapon. He's always hanging around with Gillon's fighters and is privy to their war councils. And he's also got plenty of excuses to be around Palmer, so unless Gillon is smart or paranoid enough to have someone watching his watchman that's going to stack the deck more in Palmer's favor than the Diggstown men's. As the big day approaches Gillon works on his list of fighters while Roy catches up on Diggs' back story by punching Caine during a practice session until his manager spills. The fight that destroyed his mind was one where Gillon doped him up with amyl nitrate in an attempt to get him to lose. The odds against Diggs were too good not to take and when the fighter wasn't going to take a dive, his manager took matters into his own hands. Obviously this isn't common knowledge in town or Gillon would have been run out on a rail or just beaten to death by the enraged citizens he fleeced.

Buster supplies the Palmer organization with the names of the first five fighters; Fitz and Caine get to work corrupting them as soon as they can. There's a $5000 bribe planned for the Busby brothers to both take a dive, the "brown bottle" treatment for another guy (whatever that is), and an out of town hooker to wear out another one before the match. Two high school kids with helmets and a few mediocre rednecks are the remaining combatants, and everything looks good up until the guys notice that Emily Forrester's in the barn listening to them. Caine takes her for a drive while explaining that yes, he's got a plan but no, it isn't one that will take money out of anyone's pockets but Gillon's. For one thing, nobody else in Diggstown has anything worth stealing. Caine asks Emily to wait until she talks to her brother to make up her mind about him, which would be great except that she's going to need a Ouija board to do that. His body is in a crate outside the Diggstown rail stop; when Emily runs off Gabriel follows and puts it together on the spot--Wolf was killed "trying to escape" when he had less than a week left on his sentence because he was never supposed to get out of the Olivair County prison alive.

Why would a meathead like Wolf Forrester need to be dealt with so permanently? Well, it turns out that Caine's been holding a few cards very close to his chest. Wolf Forrester accidentally found out that Gillon doped Diggs up during his last fight, and was quickly framed as the Avon Barksdale of the county and shipped off to prison. When he explained what was up to his cellmate, Caine started putting his plan together. And with Olivair County Prison serving as a source for fighters, Caine tells Emily that Wolf was already in his pocket so that if he was the tenth fighter on the list he'd take a convincing dive and "Honey" Roy would win the bet. Gabriel asks Wolf's sister to find out how much money and property Gillon really has; the plan was always to take every cent Gillon has. Caine, not being a complete son of a bitch, also springs for a huge funeral for Wolf because it's the last thing he can do for the poor lug.

All too soon it's time for the big fight. Gillon congratulates the Palmer crew for starting the fights at midnight on the dot; Diggstown is a farming community and everyone lined up to box will be staying up way past their usual bedtimes. Every advantage helps, of course, and Gillon's enough of a rogue to appreciate a well-executed move against him. He's not so polite that he won't have Emily killed if he finds out she's unraveled the way he bet people's money on Diggs' last fight and then used financial three-card monte to use their own cash to buy their property and collect rents from them. Once Caine figures out what went down, he knows exactly how much Gillon stands to lose, in strict dollars and cents and as the head of the town.

Caine might have a strategy for rigging each fight as it comes up, but Gillon's not stupid and he knows about boxing. He tells the first five men on the list to concentrate on Palmer's body specifically--one man is supposed to do nothing but hit him in the left eye, one on the right eye, one in the midsection, and so on. The plan is to keep hurting him piece by piece until he can't continue (which will win him the bet and wind up getting Caine good and dead at Corsini's request). After the strategy is laid out Gillon leads a prayer circle and asks for the divine assistance to tear "Honey" Roy Palmer to pieces in front of a paying audience.

And then the beatdowns start. There's really not a lot I can say about each fight as it proceeds other than it's a lot of fun to watch the way Palmer has to figure out what to do against each person. The first fight is completely unrigged and Fitz spends plenty of time in the stands making side bets with Diggstowners who think their hometown guy is going to win it in the first bout. In a corner conference, Palmer is confident but reminds Caine that someone can always get lucky even if they aren't all that good. ("I figured that since I was taking all the punches, you should share in some of the anxiety.") Slim Busby, the second fighter (and one who took a bribe to take a dive) is a terrible actor and winds up tipping his hand to Gillon's men. They find the stashed money in his rusty old pickup truck and tell his brother Hambone (the fifth fighter) to beat Palmer or they'll kill his brother. That's quite a misstep in the film; especially with the racial overtones of a sheriff hanging a black guy for his transgressions. The rest of the movie, even with the death threats from Corsini and Gillon in turn, is lighthearted and blackhearted at the same time (a tone that must have been incredibly hard to sustain at the script level and during production).

After Slim's fiasco it's time for Billy, Robby's sidekick, to take his shot. With the helmet on it's tough for Roy to hurt him without using up plenty of energy that he's going to need later, but he makes do (and absolutely wallops him in the breadbasket after Billy drops a racial slur on him in the ring). That's not kosher, and even the home town crowd cheers when he gets dropped. And that means the tone can swing back towards the broadly funny with the "brown bottle" treatment; the fourth fighter's drinking water tastes a little poisony because someone from the Palmer crew has put laxatives in it. The fourth guy's nervous enough after seeing Roy work through three dudes in a row, but with his guys churning and Palmer hitting him in the stomach over and over he actually flees the ring and runs for the bathroom. Cue "Yakety Sax" while he figures out how to drop his shorts while wearing boxing gloves, I guess.

And now it's time for the fifth fight; Hambone Busby gets his ultimatum from Gillon and has to try and beat Roy in order to save his brother's life. Caine thinks Gillon simply outbid them and Palmer has to fight a lot harder than he thought he'd have to in order to stay in the game. It's a shame and a tragedy when hambone loses (and it's telling that Palmer is the one who's able to calm him down before the sheriff can shoot him in self-defense), but that also catalyzes Emily, Fitz, Caine and Palmer into upping their game and deciding that whatever else happens, Gillon has to go down.

The next morning it's time for fight number six, which lasts exactly long enough for Palmer to drive the fighter's consciousness straight out of his body with a single hit and ask for the next opponent. Which is Robby Gillon. His dad tells him to do something unusual, standing up on the apron and walking away after looking Palmer in the eye, which is more than fine with everyone in Palmer's corner. The next fighter is Frank, the one who pummeled Fitz in the bar in the first act (Fitz, smiling waving cheerfully at Frank but talking to Roy:  "Rip his tits off.") Frank gets himself disqualified by trying to turn the fight into an MMA match when he boots Roy in the groin (and now is as good a place as any to mention that the referee is played by Benny Urquidez, a 27-year undefeated champion of full contact karate and now a fight trainer and choreographer for movies; it always makes me smile when I see him in the ring and remember that the person with the best combat skills in the film is just counting the actors out and saying things like "Break it up!" in the middle of the fights).

The next guy is a gigantic dude nicknamed Tank who is 283.5 pounds of anger. He's younger, stronger and faster than Roy and has a significantly better reach; he's also fighting his first match of the day instead of his eighth. It would seem insurmountable but "Honey" Roy Palmer isn't a dumb musclehead, he's a boxer. It takes him a while and it grinds him down a bit, but he eventually puts Tank down for good.

And then the last fight is ready to start, and Gillon demonstrates that he's a hell of a lot smarter and more devious than Caine gave him credit for; it's Hammerhead Hagan, the only man to beat Roy back in his original fighting career. He's also got all the advantages Tank had re:  getting a good night's sleep and not having to fight a bunch of dudes throughout the previous night and day. And he's undoubtedly been promised a fantastic payday for schooling Palmer. To add just a dash of insult to injury, Gillon presents a receipt for a boarding house stay from the day he and Caine set up the fight rules; he snuck his ringer in literally under Caine's nose. Remember when Emily said she was getting the basement ready for a new tenant? That's the guy.

Thank goodness he's also twenty years older, or Palmer would be leaving the arena feet first. As it is things look incredibly desperate, with multiple sports-movie cliches piling up as the two boxers wear each other down. Caine is suffering just as much as Roy is, telling him between rounds that he's going to stop the fight and forfeit the bet ("You really gotta work on that motivation thing."). Palmer refuses and winds up taking a hellacious beating at Hagan's hands. Since this is the big finish, Roy is inspired by catching sight of Diggs in the bleachers and remembering just what he's up against before seeing his pain as some new injection and rising above human limitations. Caine doesn't think it's enough, though, and signals a forfeit because he doesn't want to watch his friend and partner die in the ring because of his scheme. Gillon's triumph when Caine throws the towel into the ring turns to ashes when Palmer catches the towel, throws it back out and enters Beast Mode. The entire crowd joins in for the count out but Gillon doesn't seem to care that much.

It turns out there's still one more fight because of an obscure and possibly made-up clause in the rules of boxing; when Robby Gillon walked away from his fight he hadn't entered the ring, which means only nine fights have been fought. That's bad enough, but Minoso Torres turns out to live in Olivair County, and Caine's openly terrified of his skills. The warden showed up just to sneer at Caine for trying to put one over on John Gillon (and because you need an antagonist to come back in the final act to show how serious things have gotten). Gillon busts out his Death Stare and warns Caine not to try and hustle a hustler.

Which he should have listened to, because partway through the first round, just as Gillon jumps to his feet in anticipation of winning, Caine does something that shows exactly how far ahead he planned his little chess game and an utterly desolate John Gillon utters the line of the movie:  "You beat me fair and square". All that's left before the credits roll is to show exactly how much Gillon has lost (when your townspeople cheer a fixed fight because you lost your bet, you're not in charge any more). And when he snags the gun from his sheriff and tries to settle things like the sorest of losers, it's his own son who steps in to stop him (and Hambone Busby who gets to exact a moment of delicious revenge because Roy's hands hurt too badly to do it himself). Bruce Dern gives an amazing Terror Face in that moment and it's the cherry on top of the movie's Banana Kaboom when he shows it off.

This is a sports movie that I don't just tolerate or merely like, I'm full-bore in the cult for this one. It's got a truly fantastic cast, lots of punching, and wonderful chemistry between James Woods and Louis Gossett, Jr. (as well as Woods and Oliver Platt and Woods and Bruce Dern). Hissable villains, tarnished protagonists, a twisty script that makes sense all the way through, double-crosses, triple-crosses, schemes, threats, dirty fights and rednecks getting demolished by a middle-aged black dude. What's not to love? Woods has never been better in a film (I especially love the little moment where he's putting blister pads on his sockless feet before slipping back into his shoes--he's committing to his part because whenever he can annoy John Gillon he can nudge the bastard into making mistakes). It's sort of like Moneyball in that it's a sports movie less about a sport than the system involved in making victory more possible. But with plenty of punching.

Because I really do love movies about punching.


  1. I detest sports movies. I think Diggstown is actually a grift salad with a few sportsy bacon bits on top.

    (And yes, it endlessly amuses me how much the most non-violent person I know loves movies about punching things. And hitting evil-doers with pipe wrenches.)

  2. I will join the church of Diggstown with you, Tim! I love this movie also. Whenever someone asks me what my favorite boxing movies are, I always list this along with the usual suspects (Rocky, Raging Bull). Woods, Gossett, and Oliver Platt are amazing, and Dern is a perfect villain.

  3. There's enough hustlers outmaneuvering each other in the first two acts to make the third act of PUNCHING TIME! stand out in relief; similarly, leading up to PUNCHING TIME! in the third act means the first two acts have plenty of room to breathe and let the actors bounce off each other. It's a great little movie, and one that I am unabashedly in the cult for.

  4. ...I get the feeling there's a reference here I didn't even know was a joke (or you're just pointing out how close the physical hero's name is to "Sugar" Ray Leonard).