Walking Tall (2004)

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 08/04/04 07:50:40

"Remaking The Rock"
3 stars (Average)

Hollywood eats its own young. You only have to track the number of remakes released each year. We’ve just had new versions of Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Stepford Wives (1975) - makeovers of House of Wax (1953), The Ladykillers (1955), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and Alfie (1966) are soon to hit Australia. So if you’re thinking, “hey, I’ve seen this before” while watching a new movie, you could be right.

Now it’s the turn of Walking Tall, a sleeper hit from 1973 about real-life Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker). The 2004 film is dedicated to the Sheriff’s memory, but an opening title - “inspired by a true story” - signals that it’s no longer his story we’re seeing.

After eight years in the US Special Forces, Chris Vaughn (The Rock) returns home to present day Ferguson, in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. He expects to find work at the local lumberyard, but it’s closed for business. His family explains that local entrepreneur Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough) has prospered since he and Vaughn were high school rivals. Hamilton inherited the lumberyard, the community’s principal source of revenue and employment, and promptly sold it to build a raunchy casino, The Wild Cherry. Hamilton has grown powerful and profited from gambling and corruption, but he should have known better than to make Vaughn angry...

The movie’s purported high moral stand against corruption is so much window dressing. Walking Tall is a shameless “guy” movie - if you’re lacking a Y chromosome, move along please, nothing to see here. There’s a bone-crunching football game, followed by an extended, bone-shattering brawl in the casino, all to a driving rock soundtrack. Big trucks and a big explosion dominate the action. The love interest is an erotic dancer at the casino, and her first scene is a gratuitous striptease. Lo and behold, before the movie is out, our babe is in a bikini firing a gun.

On the strength of his performance here (I can’t even remember him from The Mummy), The Rock may forge himself a career as the next Vin Diesel. Real name Dwayne Johnson, The Rock was born in San Francisco and raised in Hawaii. He’s half-Samoan and followed his father and grandfather into the World Wrestling Federation. He boasts only a handful of facial expressions - his specialty is mild concern - and seems unable to express more than one emotion at a time. Still, he’s popular with audiences and movie stars have emerged from less likely sources. As his best buddy, Johnny Knoxville (creator-star of MTV’s reality stunt series Jackass) has the same crumpled, fidgety look as Mark Ruffalo. He makes for a surprisingly likeable sidekick.

The film’s five writers between them come up with a few good lines. Knoxville gets the best, describing the casino as “nothing but fake boobs and real arseholes”. Director Kevin Bray (All About the Benjamins) keeps matters short (at 85 minutes) and simple. By the time The Rock starts swinging his homemade club, chances are you’re on his side. But that’s not much of an achievement when the bad guys are so dastardly. You pick Hamilton as the villain from his first appearance - he wears black and sneers a lot.

The story’s roots in history seem distant now (though from what I’ve read of the original, it played fast and loose with the facts to mythologise Pusser in his own lifetime). I haven’t seen the 1973 movie, but I can’t imagine it being as much of a cartoon as this. This remake has energy; it’s nonsense with pace. Walking Tall is a simulated movie with a simulated movie star.

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