Carry a big stick
I used to watch the original, legendarily bad Walking Tall (1973) when it would air on television way back when. Sure it was a bad movie, but it was bad in that really good drive-in movie crap sort of way. My father would tell me that it was a true story, and I would marvel at how much one Sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) would get his ass repeatedly kicked, suffer his friends and family getting murdered, and still come back to fight for justice. His weapon of choice: a big piece of wood. His goal: to rid his town of cheating gamblers, prostitution, drug dealers and basically anybody who looked at him the wrong way.
When word came out that a remake starring The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson) was in the works, I actually thought a new film on the subject could be a kick. After all, the buckets of blood spilt in the original looked like watercolor paint, Joe Don Baker had the body of a potato chip tester, and The Rock was pretty cool in The Rundown. New action star kicks major ass as Sheriff Pusser!
Well, no. While The Rock is a charismatic presence, and director Kevin Bray surrounds him with a decent cast including Johnny “Jackass” Knoxville, the story is all wrong. This is no period piece on the real-life Buford Pusser. It’s a modern day tale that is merely “inspired” by Pusser.
The Rock plays Chris Vaughn, a soldier returning home from unexplained duty to get a job at his beloved wood mill. He comes to find out that his sweetheart of a hometown has gone naughty, full of drugs, gambling, adult video stores and Home Depots. Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough), a former football buddy, has started up a sleazy casino where scantily clad women take showers out in the open, the dealers throw loaded dice, and Vaughn gets his torso cut up by Hamilton’s henchmen for protesting a fixed game.
Like Baker in the original, Vaughn is left for dead—a state he does not reach after a trucker gets him to the hospital in the nick of time. Just as he’s starting to get better, evidenced by a stunning abdominal crunch routine, trouble brews again when his nephew nearly overdoses on crystal meth, prompting Vaughn to pick up Pusser’s weapon of choice (a really big stick) and smash casino employees over the head with it. Rather than plead guilty to charges, he goes to trial (where he fires his lawyer), pleads his own case, wins a not-guilty verdict and becomes sheriff.
Until this point, the remake is rather faithful to the events of the original film, only the names have been changed, the language and violence have been toned down a bit from the original’s R rating, and The Rock looks a lot better with his shirt off. Lovers of the original badass film will grumble as the remake goes all happy Hollywood after Vaughn becomes Sheriff. In the Baker version, Pusser’s wife gets her head blown off, his buddies get blown up, and he repeatedly ends up in the hospital after being stabbed, shot, run over, etc. In this version, The Rock cleans up the town real quick, all of his beloveds are spared, and he arrests the bad guy rather than knocking his skull off with a piece of cedar. That’s not Walking Tall!
This one clocks in at a meager 88 minutes (the original was more than two hours), and while it has some decent moments, it basically chickens out. The Rock is a worthy action hero, and this film is better than, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando or Stallone’s Cobra. Still, it’s too short and too darned nice to call itself Walking Tall.