By David Mumpower
March 30, 2004
"I guess this changes the nature of our relationship a bit, eh?"
In 1973, a portly Texan named Joe Don Baker created one of the most memorable vigilante heroes in the history of cinema. The character, based on the very real exploits of a Tennessee sheriff named Buford Pusser, did more for the 2X4 than Home Depot ever could. Fast forward to 2004, and the man who calls himself The Rock is ready for his own take on the concept. In the end, though, his slab of wood doesn't pack the same wallop that the B-movie classic offered.
I should own up to a personal bias here. I am a huge fan of Dwayne Johnson and have taken a great deal of personal interest in watching his movie career evolve. Whether that makes me more critical or more forgiving when his efforts disappoint is a matter of some conjecture. What I believe in this instance is that I probably wound up getting more enjoyment out of this movie than non-Johnson enthusiasts will. If you are neither an admirer of the formula nor of The Rock, look elsewhere. Walking Tall is borderline unwatchable for people who require more than hammy, over-the-top acting, random fight sequences and the wide, toothy smirk of a rising action star.
In Walking Tall, director Kevin Bray (All About the Benjamins) does not attempt to re-tell the story of Buford Pusser. Having his Samoan star try to portray a Smokey and the Bandit type of role is assumed to be too much of a stretch for the audience to accept. Instead, a new Pusser-esque character, Chris Vaughn, is created. Vaughn, a returning military officer from a special ops unit, has grown homesick. The soldier wants to renew old familial relationships after almost a decade away, so he plans to get a job with his father at the Mill. To his disappointment, the first discovery he makes of the Thomas Wolfe Can't Go Home Again variety is that the local factory, the main source of income and employment for his town, has been shuttered.
When he gets home, his parents explain that the town is different. Vaughn's old high school friend, Jay Hamilton, Jr., has closed down the mill in order to funnel all of the town's money to his other business, a casino. Just in case the audience doesn't instantly equate Hamilton with evil, it's quickly revealed that drugs and prostitution are linchpins of this den of sin. The "subtle" direction all but puts Neal McDonough, the actor portraying Hamilton, in a red costume with horns and a tail.
During the first two encounters of the renewed acquaintances, Hamilton and Vaughn indicate a fondness for one another. Then, The Rock’s character notices the placement of loaded dice at the casino, which costs his friend a large wager. When confronted about the cheating, the table operator calls in security, and these guys beat up Chris Vaughn pretty good. When the soldier goes to the police to complain, he is quickly informed that the casino is an island unto itself and that self-policing is the law enforcement stance of the residing sheriff. This makes Chris Vaughn resolve to find revenge on his own and eventually run for sheriff in order to take on the proverbial task of “cleaning up the town."
Armed only with a 2X4, Vaughn goes to confront Hamilton. He winds up wrecking the place, thereby starting a blood feud betwixt the two men. McDonough is a brilliant actor who chewed up scenery in NBC’s Boomtown, but he is given virtually nothing to do in Walking Tall other than seethe at The Rock and pick a fight of the “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us” variety. From then on, the lines are drawn between the good guys (i.e Vaughn’s family and friends) and the bad guys (i.e. anyone wearing lumberjack style attire). The action sequences between the rival gangs are for the most part satisfying. If nothing else is said of Rock as an actor, he is believable and engaging as a badass. Otherwise, there is little of note going on.
During those intermittent lulls between action sequences, Johnny Knoxville has the responsibility of entertaining the troops. As Rock’s high school buddy, Ray Templeton, Knoxville is there to provide comic relief and nothing else. An engaging physical comedian likely to be known as much more than the Jackass guy before his career is done, Knoxville does provide most of the enjoyment in the movie. It’s also readily apparent in a couple of scenes that a lot of his funniest moments are ad-libs that are so funny that they didn’t get left on the cutting room floor. Walking Tall might be The Rock’s movie, but Johnny Knoxville is the main appeal.
Conversely, Ashley Scott is ostensibly the female lead in Walking Tall. Her role may be summarized thusly (skip down a paragraph if you are worried about spoilers involving a cliche female lead in an action movie). She does a pole dance for an anonymous casino customer (who uses dollar bills though I would to politely suggest to management that casino chips would be a better payment system). Soon after the garter-clad striptease, she encounters her ex-boyfriend, Chris Vaughn. Then, she largely disappears for half the movie. 45 minutes later, she remembers to show up at his place of employment just in time to have sex with him. Finally, she manages to get caught in a shootout while wearing only her Victoria’s Secret Spring Collection red bra. Now, anyone unfortunate enough to have watched an episode of Birds of Prey isn't likely to mistake her for Meryl Streep, but it's still got to be major blow to Scott's pride to be reduced to working the same angle as is normally seen in a Girls Gone Wild video.
The other notable performances in the film belong to John Beasley and Khleo Thomas. In the role of Vaughn's pacifist father, Beasley is expected to express the emotional impact the town's depreciation has had on one family. The actor/producer/narrator of Everwood is a tender-faced, compassionate man but his role is so cliché and underwritten that his only acting option is usually to smile tolerantly. Thomas, the co-star of last year's Disney hit, Holes, is the nephew trying to get to know his heroic uncle. His part is noteworthy only in how much it exemplifies Walking Tall's mistake in making the Vaughn character far too heroic. He’s a top percentile soldier who loves his family more than life itself. We get it. Having Vaughn save his nephew from drugs and teach the boy how to walk the path of righteousness beats the audience over the head with redundancy.
In the end, Walking Tall offers roughly 80 minutes of haphazardly edited but frequently enjoyable action and comedy. The 2004 version follows the same general themes of the original version. The film explores the same concept of a vigilante-turned-law official while focusing heavily on the combat. The moments between Knoxville and Rock are entertaining enough for fans of either talent to walk away satisfied. For anyone less inclined to like the movie going in, disappointment is an eventuality. The chemistry between the MTV and WWE performers is exceptional, but the movie offers little else of value.
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