Blending elements of "Rocky" and "The Sting," this crowd-pleaser mixes it up with boxing, revenge and salty one-liners that should satisfy audiences, assuming MGM can convince anyone to see it. The unappealing title and ad campaign certainly aren't much incentive, meaning it's up to star appeal and positive word-of-mouth to fill the arena and save this well-oiled middleweight from a trip to Palookaville.
Blending elements of “Rocky” and “The Sting,” this crowd-pleaser mixes it up with boxing, revenge and salty one-liners that should satisfy audiences, assuming MGM can convince anyone to see it. The unappealing title and ad campaign certainly aren’t much incentive, meaning it’s up to star appeal and positive word-of-mouth to fill the arena and save this well-oiled middleweight from a trip to Palookaville.Based on a Leonard Wise novel, the story offers a very simple premise and only slightly more elaborate scam, dropping or neglecting several plot points as it seeks to finish its road work in 97 minutes. Few will mind, however, as the film recovers from sluggish early rounds with plenty of action in the second half, as Steven McKay’s screenplay jabs away with jokes that connect frequently enough to carry through several dour sequences to a big and clever payoff. James Woods demonstrates his trademark intensity along with a comic flair (a balance he tried to achieve much less successfully in “The Hard Way”) as just-paroled hustler Gabriel Caine, who sets upa big-money boxing match pitting his ringer “Honey” Roy Palmer (Louis Gossett Jr.) against any 10 men from the burgh of Diggstown. Like “The Sting,” the target is truly despicable, and few can fit that description more capably than Bruce Dern, whose character, John Gillon, stole the town from its citizens and rubs out anyone who cross him. All the trademark flourishes are there, including a couple of murders for motivation, a beautiful woman (Heather Graham) of little narrative consequence, a tenuous relationship between Gillon and his son (a suddenly quite grown-up Thomas Wilson Brown), and Caine and Palmer’s scam-gone-wrong history, leading to ample good-natured bickering. Despite the thinness of the material, director Michael Ritchie (whose sports-related movies include “Downhill Racer,””The Bad News Bears,””Semi-Tough” and, more recently, the toothless “Wildcats”) has done a solid job in building the audience’s interest, getting amiable performances out of his leads and colorful moments from supporting players. The material is so familiar, in fact, that the filmmakers can drop or pick up story threads (the lack of relationship between Woods and Graham or late-arriving father-son conflict) without it being obvious that the ideas haven’t been developed. Fight coordinators James Nickerson and Bobby Bass certainly haven’t broken any new ground, but the boxing sequences are compelling, and Gossett convincingly comes across as an aging brawler with a potent right cross. With the exception of the narrative gaps, tech credits also go the distance, from Woods’ garish wardrobe to James Newton Howard’s brassy score. The question nevertheless remains whether MGM can sound its trumpets loud enough to put “Diggstown” on the map.