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By David Grove | April 4, 2004

You’d think, after his breakthrough in “The Rundown,” that The Rock would want to seize the opportunity to take his career to the next level, but that’s not what he’s done with “Walking Tall,” an in-name-only remake of a moonshine classic that feels recycled from frame one.
The only redeeming aspect of the film is The Rock who again shows evidence that he has the goods to be a big action star. In a strange way, “Walking Tall” is a good vehicle for The Rock’s skills as a comedic action star – since the film has virtually nothing else going for it, aside from The Rock’s charisma, he gets lots of screen-time to strut his stuff.
The film is loosely tied to the 1973 film of the same name that starred Joe Don Baker as a small-town lawman who distributed brutal southern justice while spouting lines like, “A man just doesn’t know how many friends he’s got until he’s flat on his back.” This “Walking Tall” has very little in common with that film, not the least of which the fact that The Rock’s name in the film is Chris Vaughn not Buford Pusser. It would be hard to imagine The Rock with a name like Buford Pusser but this film would’ve been wise to take some of the better parts of the original film, namely the memorable characters and the funny redneck dialogue. What about the powerful and tragic ending from the 1973 film? Something new.
As Chris Vaughn, The Rock plays a morally rigid former Special Forces soldier who returns to his hometown after an eight-year hiatus and finds himself disgusted by the way social ills have eaten away at the moral fabric of his once peaceful town. He meets an old friend named Jay(Neal McDonough)and discovers, much to his horror, that Jay’s turned the local mill into a strip bar casino complete with corruption and that his teenage nephew’s hooked on crystal meth. That’s the last straw for Chris.
The idea of Chris Vaughn having a rigid moral code and being sickened by what he sees in society(the same concept was used by Charles Bronson in the awful “Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects”)is potentially interesting, but the rest of “Walking Tall” is just a straight revenge picture. No potentially interesting idea – whether it be Chris’ moral beliefs or his memories of his time in the Special Forces – are given any life in the sparse 80 minutes that this film exists on the screen. There’s another potentially interesting subplot involving Chris’ old girlfriend from high school(Ashley Scott)who’s become a stripper, but the two actors have no chemistry and their relationship isn’t very believable. You get the feeling that The Rock, the foul-mouthed wrestler, would’ve torn her apart with nasty comments if they were in a wrestling ring together.
If the film had focused on Chris’ eight year absence – and the resulting effect on the characters and the way Chris remembered things in the past – it might’ve created an interesting world. Instead, The Rock is always reacting to everything that happens in the film and the film never fully puts The Rock inside the body of Chris Vaughn. We never get to know any of the characters.
By the time Chris has become one man vigilante – and defacto moral arbiter in his small town – “Walking Tall” has lost all believability as the film merely calls for The Rock to run around and beat up everyone in sight. Another problem is the film’s villain. In the original film, you had the sense that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending, but in this film, Neal McDonough is such a cartoon villain that you never feel any real sense of danger. McDonough looks like a dead ringer for perennial tough guy actor James Remar, but Remar doesn’t have to bleach his hair to look like a psycho. The only memorable supporting character in the film is provided by Johnny Knoxville of “Jackass” fame who plays Chris’ nervous deputy or, you could say, the Dean Martin role from “Rio Bravo.” He’s fun to watch and you wish that his Barney Fife character and The Rock were involved in a more interesting adventure.
There’s nothing wrong with revenge movies or films where the hero’s nothing more than a one man vigilante. Look at the original “Walking Tall” or “Code of Silence” which is still the best film that Chuck Norris ever made – and one of the best action films of the 1980s under the guidance of director Andrew Davis who went on to make “The Fugitive.” What made those films great was that their heroes had a purpose and a believable agenda while, in this film, The Rock looks like he’s fallen into a psycho version of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Director Kevin Bray never finds an interesting tone for the film and never have I seen Vancouver(where “Walking Tall” was filmed)look so bland on film – cold and washed-out. The short running time echoes a feeling of post-production disaster.
The good news for The Rock is that he’s still an exciting presence with a big future, but why did he pick a film like this? The Rock is at the exact same place that Steven Seagal was around 1990 when he was making films like “Hard to Kill” and “Out for Justice” – action movies that were competent and above average, but just barely above average. It was the same with Bronson and Norris until they all sabotaged their careers by falling into tired formulas that destroyed their box office credibility.
The Rock remains an exciting and charismatic presence, but he’d better not make anymore films like “Walking Tall.”
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