Quite a Tall Order

The Rock tries on Joe Don Baker's shoes for size, and they don't exactly fit

Mar 31, 2004 at 4:00 am
Before Star Wars and Indiana Jones, audiences thrilled to an epic big-screen trilogy of a different sort: the tale of one righteous lawman and his big piece of wood. Based on the real-life exploits of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, the first Walking Tall movie (1973) made lead actor Joe Don Baker a redneck hero forever and ever. The second film was supposed to star Pusser as himself until a mysterious "accident" claimed his life; Bo Svenson went on to make the role his own in two movies and a TV spinoff.

In the year 2004, it's a newly written rule within the Hollywood studio system that every '70s B-movie that was ever popular needs to be remade -- wait, no, "re-imagined" is the term they're using these days, to give themselves an easy out when viewers with memories invariably complain that the originals were just fine the way they were, thanks. Such re-imaginings tend to be on bigger budgets with slicker production values and less thought-provoking content, but slap a Johnny Cash song on the soundtrack and it confers the momentary illusion of profundity. Thus, the all-new versions of both Dawn of the Dead and Walking Tall.

Buford Pusser isn't even mentioned (save a dedication right before the end credits) in this new version of his life story, which has also been moved from Tennessee to Washington State (a.k.a. Canada). In his place is a younger character named Chris Vaughn, played by the Rock, which actually isn't as much of a departure as it may seem. The cinematic Buford, remember, was a retired pro-wrestler known as "the Bull"; the Rock is now semi-retired from the ring, where he was known as "the Brahma Bull." To further accentuate the wrestling connection, '80s star "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan based his entire ring persona on the original Sheriff Pusser, complete with two-by-four to whack cheaters in the head. Duggan, however, looked like a rural roughneck; the Rock more closely resembles a GQ model. Stone Cold Steve Austin might have made for a more accurate casting choice, though he's less likely to lure in the ladies at the multiplex than his one-time archrival surely will.

Beside the fact that none of the original characters remain, the new script follows the original beat-for-beat, with one scene from Walking Tall Part II thrown in for good measure. Hero comes back to his parents' hometown to find a crooked casino has corrupted everything and almost everyone, stands up for himself, gets beaten and left for dead, runs for sheriff, then decides to beat the bad guys upside the head with a large plank. The original was very much a '70s film, though, with a vulnerable hero who -- after exacting his revenge despite being in a half-body cast -- is taken away in a squad car, tears streaming down his face, having won the battle but lost his loved ones. This is a contemporary PG-13 film aimed at the young-skewing fan base of the Rock, however -- only mild sleaze here, no family members executed and, without spoiling too much, let's just say a less-ambiguous ending.

Assuming one has never heard of the original franchise, however, the current incarnation is good basic fun. It could almost be an episode of The A-Team, with the Rock as Mr. T, George Peppard and Dirk Benedict all in one. The role of token crazy guy Dwight Schulz is filled by Johnny Knoxville, who's developed an entire career around trying to persuade people that he's insane.

Director Kevin Bray shows more skills here than in his annoying Ice Cube-Mike Epps buddy flick All About the Benjamins. A couple of bird's-eye-view shots are particularly nice and convey the necessary plot information without rubbing it in. Director of photography Glen MacPherson has generally turned in forgettable work before (the aforementioned Benjamins, Exit Wounds, Loser), but delivers the goods here with one or two scenes that will no doubt be on his highlight reel for years to come.

Both the Rock and Knoxville have a natural charisma that has somehow, inexplicably, been honed from years of masochistic, self-inflicted pain, but credit must also go to villain Neal McDonough (Timeline), who bears more than a passing resemblance to Buffy the Vampire Slayer's charismatic blood-sucking antihero Spike. Possessing the greatest character arc in the film, McDonough moves effortlessly from charming huckster to ice-cold kingpin in a performance undoubtedly inspired by numerous studio executives. Less successful is obligatory love interest Ashley Scott (TV's Birds of Prey), who looks and performs like every wannabe actress in the world. In fact, the only thing about Walking Tall that absolutely screams "Blasphemous remake!" is the atrocious ballad-style cover of New Order's "Blue Monday" that plays during Scott's love scene with the Rock.

Granted how much fun the lead performers are to watch, one wishes they were appearing in a more substantial movie. The Rock, at least, will be doing an Elmore Leonard adaptation next, in which he should finally get to use his comedic skills; it seems unjust somehow that one of the funniest men to ever give a WWE interview gets stuck as the straight man with a comedy sidekick in every film thus far. In Walking Tall, at least, the sidekick-hero relationship is a sign of societal progress, as Sheriff Pusser's comedic sidekick was a black man in a racially tense town, whereas Chris Vaughn has a token white sidekick as well as an interracial family about whom an issue is never made.