He’s bigger than you are. He’s tougher. He’s faster. He’s younger than you are. He hasn’t fought 22 rounds today, but remember this… you are BLACK! ”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. I mean it’s… I’m trying to inspire you. It’s a Roots kinda thing. It’s a motivation thing.”
“Well, you’re shit at motivation.”
For a film that has two known titles, it saddens me that Midnight Sting or by its other name Diggstown has been forgotten by the film fan, especially those who love their boxing. For me personally, Midnight Sting (the title I know it as) is one of my most cherished films. I was not happy until I finally had it in my DVD collection where it now stands proud among my horror titles, ok it looks odd next to The Shinning and Straw Dogs, but I do not care, I love this film with a passion and is a welcome find to anyone who has never seen it!
How much do I love this film?
Well for a start, its in my list of Best Movies of all time, only coming behind Raging Bull and Rocky, in the best Heavyweight Title of boxing movies. While I can hear the gasps from over here, I suppose I better stop lavishing my love and explain what this film is about, I mean it has not got the emotional punch of Sly’s boxing bout or the punch of De Niro’s Bull, so why does it hold so much value for me?
We start like most boxing films with a fight. Here its in a prison where Gabriel Kane (an excellent James Woods) is watching on. During the fight a fellow prisoner gives Kane some money and before you know it, Kane is leading the man to a daring prison break, all this happens when the fight takes place and its only here when watching again you realise how pivotal this moment is. Not to spoil it for anyone, its just great how much hidden layers is in this film
Kane is only days away from his release from Winfield Prison, a place where where he has spent the last three years for selling Old Masters portraits painted with would you believe acrylics. Yes viewer and reader, Kane is a con man, and a really good one. While inside he has been arranging bare-knuckle fights and taking bets which has resulted in a $50,000 nest egg, money that he is putting in motion for his next big deal!
That deal is in the small town of Diggstown, a small Georgia town where boxing is the main focus and the whole town is run by John Gillon (a memorable Bruce Dern) who like Kane is at his best when he is doing a con! Kane and his ally Fritz (Oliver Platt) arrive in town and go their separate ways, Fritz decides to hustle some of the local teens over a game of pool while Kane visits the local boxing gym to check out the local talent. Its here where he meets the bad guy of the whole show John and its also here we see the power that this man has over the town. Again no spoilers but its a great moment and one that will no doubt stay in your brain long after the watch for reasons you can only understand by watching the film!
While Fritz gets in trouble at the pool table for being called a hustler, he then insults them further by criticising their local boxing legend. Its here the film develops, Fritz claims he knows a man who is better than their local hero and he will put a wager on that his boxer can fight anyone in this town no matter who, what, or where. When John gets wind of this loudmouth he arrives at the pub and tells Fritz that if he wants to make that bet then he is willing to put up the money. Kane pretending not to know Fritz tells John that he will stump up the cash to set this deal up, John agrees and the bet is set!
Their boxer will fight any 10 opponents Gillon puts up against him in a 24-hour period. If he is still standing and victorious after the final man then Fritz and Kane win the bet!- Simple!
But not quite, you see the boxer they have in mind is a 47 year old retirement man who never quite made the grade and worse of all, he knows nothing about this deal and he has not fought since 1972! Enter Honey Roy Palmer-the 80’s fave Louis Gosset Jr– in what is in my mind, one of his best performance! A long time friend of Kane who unwitting gets sucked into this game because he knows Kane will end up dead if the fight does not go ahead. Why? Oh did I not tell you? To finance the whole deal, Kane also borrowed money from some Mafia kind of folk, which means of course this is no longer a no lose debate!
By the time we get past the set up with the two con men trying to out muster each other, the fight scenes are brilliant, its like watching all the Rocky films all at once. Think about it! The build up is not for one fight-but 10, all after each other, its a brilliant concept and one that will have you grinning from ear to ear, especially if you love those Balboa films. The pure feel good factor this generates is amazing even though by the time the first fight is due to begin, the wager has gone past just money, at the end its pride and the whole town of Diggstown at stake. At times the film dips its toes into darkness with murder and a real disturbing story into how bad this John is!
Of course like any Sports film, many will guess the outcome long before the climax arrives but believe me the film does not quite follow the basic formula. There are huge surprises in the last half where these con men show their desperate hand and even when we get to the climatic last fight, our sheer feel good feeling is thrown out of the window by a massive last twist that will shock you. Of course though, being a con artist film there has to be one last sting in the tail and while you recover from the one twist, the other shocks you to your core and will leave you punching the air in sheer delight. Its honestly one of the best feel good finales you will see in a film-its that good!!!
I am sorry if my praise for this film is way too much, but Midnight Sting is a film that I totally adore and cherish, its like a secret that only I share, a film forgotten in the passage of time. With Woods in brilliant form and the supporting cast on top notch (apart from a very young Heather Graham who seems to disappear halfway through), this film has become a massive cult over the years and one that deserves to be checked out not just for the brilliant acting or the great boxing fights but also for the cracking script that sprinkles with great quotes that you be thinking about for days….
Put simple: Midnight Sting is one of the most underrated gems of all time!