The benefits of maintaining good posture and carrying a big stick are explored again in “Walking Tall,” a remake of Phil Karlson’s enormously successful 1973 “hixploitation” pic that spawned two theatrical sequels, one TV movie and a short-lived series. Loosely based, like its predecessors, on the life of legendary Tennessee lawman Buford Hayes Pusser, this new version moves along at a good clip and provides a terrific action leading role for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But pic will likely do most of its business in video stores and other ancillary venues.
Having renamed its protag Chris Vaughn and transplanted him in rural Washington State — pic was lensed in British Columbia — the film’s setup otherwise closely parallels the original. Returning for the first time since he left to pursue a career in Army special forces, hometown boy Vaughn (The Rock) is happily reunited with his father (John Beasley), mother (Barbara Tarbuck), sister (Michelle Wilson) and teenage nephew (Khleo Thomas).
But he soon discovers that things around town have changed quite a bit and not for the better. A local mill — once the community’s economic center — has been shuttered, and pretty much the only game in town now is a casino/strip club run by Vaughn’s former high school rival, Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough). Vaughn’s ex-girlfriend (Ashley Scott) performs in a peep show there.
What’s worse is that the already sin-infested casino is also crooked, which Vaughn discovers when (in a memorable scene duplicated from the 1973 pic) he spots a craps table substituting rigged dice for the real deal. A huge brawl erupts, and when it’s over Vaughn is charged with inciting the incident. He pleads his case directly to the jury and promises if he’s acquitted he’ll run for sheriff and clean up the town.
From there on out, it’s payback time. Helping Vaughn is his recently deputized childhood friend, Ray (Johnny Knoxville, with such comic panache that you wish he’d been given more to do).
Like “Billy Jack” just before it and “Death Wish” right afterward, the original “Walking Tall” arrived at a moment when Americans, in the throes of high crime rates and even higher inflation, were perfectly primed for stories about the loss of security and the decay of small-town American values. Similarly, it’s not hard to see this remake (and the other vigilante pics on tap for this year) as a response to the current climate of fear concerning economic recession, acts of terrorism, et al.
Scribes David Klass, Channing Gibson, David Levien and Brian Koppelman (working from Mort Briskin’s original script) make it clear that Vaughn would be only slightly less upset about the presence of a casino in his town were it a perfectly legit enterprise.
When he isn’t out pursuing Hamilton, Vaughn purges the town of its on-the-take deputies and unconscionable drug dealers. Pic makes a particularly strong and potentially controversial argument for the right to bear arms, depicting Vaughn’s father (well played by Beasley) as a gun owner-turned-pacifist who is nonetheless forced to arm himself when the going gets rough.
In the first pic he’s had to carry more or less single-handedly, minus the presence of elaborate visual effects (“The Scorpion King”) or an expansive supporting cast (“The Rundown”), the Rock acquits himself very nicely. He effuses that confident swagger of the best action-movie leads. Yet, in spite of his huge stature, there’s something vulnerable about him.
Directing his second feature (after 2002’s Ice Cube starrer “All About the Benjamins”), musicvid helmer Kevin Bray makes an admirable stab at rooting the story in human drama rather than just producing one action set piece after another. But instead of giving the movie some kick, Bray’s action — when it does come — is unimpressively staged, shot in too-tight closeups and sloppily cut. After the believable, hand-to-hand combat used throughout, the over-the-top climax has Vaughn navigate his way through thousands of rounds of semiautomatic gunfire. By the end, “Walking Tall” has all but lost its human touch.
Also, despite pic’s major-studio packaging, Bray largely proceeds as though he were tailoring the film to the drive-in cinemas that were already on the wane when Karlson’s film premiered; not including the incredibly elongated end credits, pic takes up a scant 74 minutes of screen time.
Modestly budgeted pic sports a so-so tech package, somewhat enhanced by Canadian d.p. Glen MacPherson’s widescreen lensing, which lends the oft-used B.C. setting its own colloquial air. Curiously, the real Pusser’s background as a professional wrestler has been omitted.