Director : Kevin Bray
Screenplay : David Klass and Channing Gibson and David Levien & Brian Koppelman (based on a by Mort Briskin)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : The Rock (Chris Vaughn), Neal McDonough (Jay Hamilton Jr.), Johnny Knoxville (Ray Templeton), John Beasley (Chris Vaughn Sr.), Barbara Tarbuck (Connie Vaughn), Kristen Wilson (Michelle Vaughn), Khleo Thomas (Pete Vaughn), Ashley Scott (Deni), Michael Bowen (Sheriff Stan Watkins)
Before the final credits roll at the end of Walking Tall, there is a title card declaring that that film is dedicated to the memory of Buford Pusser, the real-life Tennessee sheriff whose actions against moonshiners and organized crime in the late 1960s made him a modern American folk hero, inspiring the 1973 hickspolitation classic Walking Tall, two sequels, and a TV show. Of course, the movie isn’t so enthralled with Pusser’s exaggerated legacy that it could keep his name. No, rather than stick with the almost unbelievably good moniker the real-life man had, the four writers responsible for hacking out the screenplay for this tepid remake saddle their hero with the jaw-droppingly boring name of Chris Vaughn. Chris Vaughn.
The name change is ultimately of no real consequence, but it is emblematic of everything that’s wrong with the movie. The casting of former wrestling champion and rising action star The Rock has a certain flavor to it, but it’s quickly evident that he has little to do other than evince righteous indignation while swinging a heavy pine two-by-four. In his previous films, The Scorpion King (2001) and The Rundown (2003), The Rock was able to play up his humor while flexing his muscles. Here, any attempts at humor feel strained and out of place; all of The Rock’s natural charisma is drowned out by the movie’s uneven tone and simple-minded pointlessness.
This is not to say that the original Walking Tall is some kind of cinematic landmark against which the remake pales. However, as part of the vigilante cycle that had audiences enthralled with fantasies of pure and simple retribution, it is a movie that speaks volumes about the time and place in which it was made. Jon Don Baker’s barrel-chested vigilante, essentially a barely disguised update of the traditional Western hero, carried a primal punch that was intensified by the social context of early ’70s unrest. Thirty-one years later, the remake plays like any other rote action movie in which the system is taken on by one man who is so superheroic that we never fear for him (at least in the original it was made clear that Buford’s do-gooderism came at a painful price to him and his family). The remake is even devoid of the heavy Southern atmosphere that made the evil goings-on in the original that much dirtier and worthy of a good skull-cracking.
When the movie opens, Vaughn is returning from eight years in Marines to his home town, only to find that the local lumber mill has been shut down and the town now relies on a casino for its business. The casino is run by Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough), a smarmy local from Vaughn’s past who is clearly the bad guy if only because his ostentatious white Cadillac Escalade is so ridiculously out of place in a world of salt-of-the-earth pick-up trucks. Hamilton is not only running a dirty casino (it’s populated with strippers and hookers and the dice are even loaded!), but he’s also running a crystal meth lab and getting the entire town, even the kids, hooked. The police, run by a corrupt sheriff (Michael Bowen), turns its collective back to any bad practices.
So, what’s a guy to do but trash the casino, avoid a much-deserved jail sentence by pleading his case like a latter-day Jimmy Stewart with bulging biceps, and then get elected sheriff? That’s exactly what Vaughn does, along the way enlisting the help of his best friend Ray Templeton (Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville), a former druggie who’s cleaned up his act and is ready to follow Vaughn down the path of bloody righteousness. Stomping all over civil rights and narrative plausibility, Vaughn becomes a one-man force to rid his home town of vice and corruption, although he has time along the way to bed a former sweetheart-turned-stripper (Ashley Scott).
Walking Tall was directed by Kevin Bray (All About the Benjamins) in flat, uninspired style. It’s been PG-13ized to the point of triviality, and one wonders if it wouldn’t have had more kick if the filmmakers had really delved into the realities of the violence they’re celebrating, rather than constantly trying to backpedal out of its consequences. Some of the early passages work, but they never get our blood boiling the way they should. The narrative is so deadening in its routine predictability that there’s no pleasure in seeing Vaughn bust the baddies; you just want him to get it over with so you can leave. The fight sequences don’t carry much thrill, and even when Vaughn pulls out his big stick (which, if one were so inclined, can be viewed as symbolic of the town’s bucolic, lumber-milling good ol’ days) it just feels tired. It almost makes you nostalgic for that awful Johnny Mathis ballad from the original … almost.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Metro Goldwyn-Mayer