Everybody who’s been salivating for years over the idea of a remake of Joe Don Baker’s 1973 vigilante-justice fantasy–all three of you–can now rest content: a new “Walking Tall” is here. As directed (fairly spiffily) by Kevin Bray, it’s far splashier in terms of action than the grubby original (or the crummy sequels that it spawned). In ex-wrestler The Rock, it also features a more plausible physical presence (and far more ingratiating personality) than Baker ever was. It’s still junk, of course, but it’s better-made junk than its predecessors. And on its own, rather simpleminded terms, it’s effective gonzo entertainment.
The Rock plays Chris Vaughn, a retired soldier who returns to his Washington state hometown to find it’s been taken over by Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough), with whom he’d had issues back in high school and who has now shut down the area’s main legitimate business–a lumber mill–in favor of illegal ones–a casino and a drug ring. Chris’ tolerance for Hamilton’s activities soon runs out, especially after he’s been beaten nearly to death after calling a crooked game at the casino and his young nephew (Khleo Thomas) has nearly ODed on crystal meth. He trashes the casino and its seedy security squad, only to be arrested by the corrupt sheriff (Michael Bowen) and put on trial. But Vaughn’s acquitted after appealing to the jury’s sense of hometown loyalty, and with the support of concerned citizens like his old chum Ray Templeton (“Jackass” alumnus Johnny Knoxville, providing comic relief), he’s elected sheriff and takes aim at Hamilton’s operation. Much mayhem results as the crime lord targets both the lawman and his family and Vaughn, in turn, decides that in the service of justice the rules must be either bent or broken. He may not be called Buford Pusser, the real-life cop whom Baker played (a moniker which today would sound too weird to be used, anyway), but he still shows he can swing a mighty mean club when required.
Nothing much in “Walking Tall” is even remotely credible, but the picture hits its nadir in the trial sequence, when the jury is swayed by an exceedingly brief and unconvincing speech from Vaughn (he ends up by exhibiting his “war wounds,” much as the Roman general Marius did back in the first century BC) and effectively engages in a most blatant case of jury nullification. But for the most part it moves reasonably well, without much fat in its barely eighty minutes apart from a desultory romantic interlude between Vaughn and nice-girl-turned-adult-dancer Deni (Ashley Scott). It certainly panders to the audience’s desire to see the bad guys get their just deserts–Vaughn’s clobbering of them at regular intervals is calculated to be as satisfying as possible, and there’s a supremely manipulative moment when his dad (John Beasley), who’s been preaching a pacifistic refusal to resort to violence, finally takes up his shotgun to down a villain when his home and family are attacked. (You can expect the audience to cheer at this point.) All of this could never be described as intellectually uplifting, but it will certainly appeal to the visceral instincts of many viewers–and that’s what a picture like this is all about. (It’s also nice to know that at the end the mill has reopened, meaning a triumph for the lumber industry that the Sierra Club certainly wouldn’t applaud.)
Certainly the picture proves a good vehicle for The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson), who handles the physical stuff with aplomb (his background makes him especially adept at feigning suffering and pain before turning the tables on his opponents) and has an easy, unforced quality that serves him well in the dialogue scenes. Knoxville gets the required laughs as his loyal, quirky buddy (and eventual deputy), and McDonough–the alcoholic DA from the busted TV series “Boomtown”–makes a hissable meanie as Hamilton. Among the supporting cast, Beasley and Thomas both have moments to shine; the remainder are used either to provide eye candy (the women) or human punching bags for The Rock to pummel and the audience to hate. Technically “Walking Tall” looks pretty small-scaled, but Bray uses his limited resources well enough, and Glen MacPherson’s widescreen lensing is actually elegant from time to time.
“Walking Tall” is nothing more than an efficiently-manufactured piece of crowd-pleasing vicarious violence, but it does what it sets out to do, even if that isn’t much. And it seems cannily suited to today’s national mood, when the government itself argues that the old rules of conduct no longer apply in a hostile and dangerous world. Just as the original did at a time of social upheaval and domestic discontent that made the tale of a guy who took no guff in the battle against crime appealing (it’s no accident that Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” series began the following year), so the fear and uncertainty engendered by terrorism make the story of decisive action in the face of evil fashionable again. Of course, whether the message is a responsible one is debatable. What’s not is that to many it will offer a comfortingly simpleminded take on how to confront the turmoil that surrounds us, this time not only domestically but internationally.