Walking Tall

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Walking Tall,” director Kevin Bray’s remake of the popular 1973 film of the same name, is not likely to be nominated for any Academy Awards, but then it is doubtful that the filmmakers were thinking like Harvey Weinstein when the cameras were rolling.  Former pro-wrestler The Rock plays Chris Vaughn, a Special Forces veteran who returns home to the Pacific Northwest (British Columbia stands in for Washington) just in time to discover that his idyllic childhood community has been transformed into a nightmarish wasteland of drug abuse and economic hardship.

The original movie, which starred cult favorite Joe Don Baker as Sheriff Buford Pusser (the Tennessee lawman whose real-life exploits formed the basis of the story), evolved into something like a franchise, with a pair of sequels (Baker bowed out and was replaced by Bo Svenson), a short-lived “Walking Tall” TV series (also starring Svenson), and a television movie with Brian Dennehy.  Someone apparently balked at the notion of The Rock playing someone with the decidedly un-Rocklike handle Buford Pusser, which is a shame if only because it would have been amusing to see the hulking powerhouse answer to the moniker.

While The Rock continues to prove that he is genuinely charismatic and can easily hold his own on the big screen, “Walking Tall” is a great deal less intelligent than its leading man.  Director Bray chugs through the all-important fight and action scenes with workmanlike skill, but anything that requires subtlety or sensitivity ends up being hammered home like it was mere fodder for Vaughn’s massive cedar club.  Audiences will do well to stifle their laughter when they witness the ham-handed shots of young addicts leaving their babies unattended in order to score drugs (that this occurs in broad daylight, on streets bustling with activity, not only calls for The Rock’s trademark eyebrow-raise, it insists on ridicule from the audience).

Vaughn quickly reckons that his one-time buddy Jay Hamilton Jr. (Neal McDonough), now a sleazy, peroxide-drenched scoundrel, is behind the town’s downfall.  Hamilton sold the family mill – depriving folks like Vaughn’s hardworking father of employment – and opened an adult-themed casino in its place.  Even worse, Hamilton is peddling all sorts of illicit drugs to mere children, who have the audacity to smoke pot in public parks.  After consulting his goofball ex-con chum Ray (Johnny Knoxville, having more fun than then script affords his character) to confirm Hamilton’s devilry, Vaughn busts up the casino and ends up defending himself in court for his hot-headed actions.

Bray jumps immediately from the legal proceedings to Vaughn’s new role as sheriff, but nothing outside of the choreographed brawls is valued by the shallow screenplay.  When Vaughn’s old flame Deni (Ashley Scott) shows up to rekindle their romance, one begins to wonder why she was included in the story at all.  This is too bad, because Scott delivers a decent performance, and because any kind of emotional investment in the characters would have surely made the movie less boring.  The same thing goes for Vaughn’s family, who fade into the background when they should have provided the demonstrative ballast for the main character’s unorthodox decision to “take matters into his own hands.”  The Rock remains tremendously watchable, however.  Maybe his next one will be better.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 4/5/04. 

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