By Kim Hollis
March 30, 2004
Sometimes, it's just fun to sit back and watch a film where the bad guys are really evil, the good guys are charming despite their innate flaws, and the action is so fast and furious that it's almost exhausting.
Fresh off The Rundown, an underrated movie that reinvented the action/adventure genre in a 21st century mold, The Rock is back to star as Buford Pusser, a Tennessee sheriff who fought the "Dixie Mafia" establishment to return law and order to his home town and the subject of the original 1973 Joe Don Baker film. Well, in theory, anyway. The Rock actually plays a guy named Chris Vaughn, who like Pusser left his town to join the military, and when he returns, finds the criminal element so in control that he is disgusted and forced to take matters into his own hands. It's really more of a spiritual cousin than an actual re-telling of the Pusser story.
In The Rock's Walking Tall, when Chris comes back to town, he instantly senses that things aren't as they should be. For starters, the old mill that used to be the area's life force is closed down, meaning Vaughn's father is also out of a job. Additionally, the guy who calls himself the sheriff just seems shady. And somehow, drugs and adult video stores/clubs seem to run rampant for a community that's such a theoretical slice of small-town America.
Chris quickly comes to the conclusion that an old high school comrade is responsible for the tailspin. Jay Hamilton, Jr. (Neal McDonough), whose family has controlled the mill for decades, has taken it upon himself to shut it down. Even worse, he's opened a casino on the outskirts of town, replete with pole dancers and unscrupulous security guards. There's also an implied connection between Hamilton's activities and the emergence of a drug culture among the city's youth. The end result of all these negative developments is simple: ROCK SMASH!!!!
For his part, The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson) is nearly as charismatic and engaging as he was in The Rundown. The script actually gives him a little bit less to do here, but he's believably quippy and accurately delivers a portrayal of a guy working on a slow burn.
The real show-stealer, though, is Johnny Knoxville, who is clearly having a fantastic time. He plays Chris's good friend Ray Templeton, who has battled his own demons with drugs but is now clean, sober, and ready to help out. Not only does Knoxville get all the best lines, but it also seems as though a lot of improvised scenes were left in the film, and they work really well. He's simply hilarious and it's impossible not to root for him.
Also giving an exemplary performance is McDonough (of the unjustly canceled Boomtown). He's a villain with charm, and even though the line between good and evil is always clearly drawn in the film, he manages to be appealing. His subtle mannerisms and unique look are totally appropriate for the character.
Other than a superfluous appearance by the excellent child actor Khleo Thomas (Holes), the other players in the film don't add much. Though John Beasley is marvelous on the family television drama Everwood, his scenes as Chris's father are just dreadful (and through some unexplained back story, incomprehensible). Likewise, Ashley Scott's screen time as "The Girl" is negligible, which is probably a good thing since she's simply excruciating as an actress.
Beyond some of the more questionable performances, one of Walking Tall's central flaws is the fact that the story is convoluted. We know that there is some sort of gun issue for both Chris and his father, but it isn't fleshed out at all so it makes absolutely no sense when it comes up as part of the plot. We likewise get the impression that Chris has some sort of negative history with Hamilton, but it's all very vague. In fact, the film is all about brevity, as it clocks in at just about 80 minutes, much of it action/fight scenes.
Still, as a simple popcorn action flick that allows you to check your brain at the door, Walking Tall works quite well. There's enough action sprinkled in amongst the humor and attempts at serious lesson-teaching that the talents of the more gifted cast members are able to shine through. It's not going to do much to change the perception that The Rock is much more than a capable action star, though.
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