Sunday, July 15, 2007

Blind As Titwell's Goat

DIGGSTOWN is one of the best movies of the last twenty years that you've probably never seen nor likely even heard of. It was directed by the late Michael Ritchie, a terrific filmmaker who made SMILE, THE BAD NEWS BEARS, THE CANDIDATE, SEMI-TOUGH and FLETCH. With Ritchie's track record and a cast that includes James Woods, Lou Gossett Jr. and Bruce Dern, DIGGSTOWN, which opened at goddamn #12 at the box office on August 14, 1992, should have been a huge smash. Instead, MGM, which couldn't sell a damn thing in those days (even its 007 franchise was stalled), barely released it on 700 screens with a boring ad campaign. It ended up as the 118th top-grossing film of the year, far below such stellar offerings as STOP! OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT, MO' MONEY and 3 NINJAS. DIGGSTOWN is a fast, funny, smart, violent comedy anchored by its three leading men and a remarkable premise based on Leonard Wise's novel THE DIGGSTOWN RINGERS.

Fast-talking conman Gabriel Cane (tailor-made for Jimmy Woods), upon being released from prison, heads to tiny Diggstown, Georgia, which is run by corrupt town boss John Gillon (Dern), who seized his li'l fiefdom after betting against the town's heavyweight champion--whom Gillon trained--and spiking his nose spray, earning Gillon the deeds to every property in town and the boxer permanent brain damage. Sending his partner Fitz (Oliver Platt) down in advance to stir the pot, Cane's scheme involves his old partner, retired boxer "Honey" Roy Palmer (Gossett). Cane bets that his man can knock out ten of Diggstown's finest fighters in less than 24 hours. The greedy Gillon takes the bait, even offering up his own son as one of his fighters. 22-year-old Heather Graham, who began a relationship with the much older Woods on this shoot, looks nice in cutoffs, but really isn't given much of a part as the sister of Woods' friend in prison.

Almost all of Ritchie's best films involve macho competition, and DIGGSTOWN is no exception. Steven McKay's screenplay contains plenty of interesting twists (as the best caper films do), and it's funny enough and moves fast enough that you'll barely notice that the concept of a 48-year-old boxer knocking out ten locals in a day is a tough sell. As usual, it's nigh impossible to take your eyes off of Woods, who's nearly always the smartest guy in the room and usually seems to be thinking four steps ahead of everyone else. He and Gossett have nice chemistry together, while Dern is properly venal. Surprisingly, McKay and Ritchie resist the urge to add a romantic subplot between Woods and Graham, which only would have taken away from the harder-edged main story. It's also fun to peek at the supporting cast, which includes Randall "Tex" Cobb (RAISING ARIZONA), Jim Caviezel (THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST), Michael DeLorenzo (NEW YORK UNDERCOVER) and Benny "The Jet" Urquidez as the referee.

I had the urge to put DIGGSTOWN on after reading Bruce Dern's autobiography last week. THINGS I'VE SAID, BUT PROBABLY SHOULDN'T HAVE: AN UNREPENTANT MEMOIR is a heckuva lot of fun and a total breeze to read. It's not heavy or tightly researched, it's just Dern talking for 300 pages. That's really how it reads, like one really long talk show appearance. Sometimes he goes off on a tangent, but you don't care, because it's so entertaining. If you've been a fan of Bruce Dern and his movies, whether it's COMING HOME or CYCLE SAVAGES, you're going to want to read this book.

The title promises a lot of dirt, but there really isn't any. There's no discussion of sex lives or debauchery, even if Jack Nicholson is a good friend. He talks a lot about his fellow actors, mostly the ones he likes, but some that he doesn't (Oliver Platt). It's refreshing to hear an old-timer like Dern be open with his admiration for today's stars; Charlize Theron, Matt Damon and Matthew Modine receive honest compliments, even though he misses the old days when everyone on the set was focused on making a great film and not babbling on cell phones, running off to their trailers, and directing through a monitor positioned 100 yards from the set.

Yeah, a lot of what he says is b.s., but it's Bruce Dern, and he's cool, and you go with it. He tells an anecdote about John Frankenheimer directing a PLAYHOUSE 90 starring Lon Chaney Jr. in OF MICE AND MEN. Lon was so drunk that he spent the first eight minutes of the live drama stumbling around the set, knocking over walls, and wandering behind the camera crew, but he totally nailed the next 82 minutes and was nominated for an Emmy. Probably the only true part of that story is that Frankenheimer was a director on PLAYHOUSE 90, but, hey, it's Bruce Dern.

There are a lot of very funny stories in the book, and he even talks about hosting SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE the night Buckwheat was assassinated. Surprisingly, Dern comes off as not particularly self-confident. Maybe it's self-deprecation, but he often talks about himself as though he were not a movie star, not an important actor, not a performer who can elevate a film just by being in it. We know differently. The boy's got game. I've never seen a Dern movie that wasn't better just by virtue of the fact that he was in it.

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