DVD Release Date: Tuesday, September 28, 2004
The latest film starring former WWE superstar The Rock, “Walking Tall,” could have taken a lot of easy roads and cornered itself into mediocrity. The fairly simple premise could have lent itself to cartoonish violence, unbelievable characters and impossible situations.
What it does instead is present a realistic tale in which the punches hurt, the characters seem like people you know, and the situations rarely cross the line into campiness. This is by no means a revolutionary film, but it’s a solid one, and most likely better than a lot of people are expecting.
One might recognize the title of the film as the same as the 1973 film that chronicled the life of Sheriff Buford Pusser as played by Joe Don Baker. The 2004 version is based on the same events of the 1973 film, but it is more of an adaptation than a remake. Most visibly, the name of the main character has been changed to Chris Vaughn (The Rock), and the illegal substance that drives the plot is crystal meth instead of moonshine. Also, the original was shot in Tennessee, while the 2004 version was filmed in British Columbia, Canada.
The spirit of the Buford Pusser character remains (and the film was dedicated to him), but director Kevin Bray (“All About the Benjamins”) has also made his own unique film. At the center of it all, of course, is the amazing charisma of The Rock. At 6 feet 4 inches tall, he has the dimensions to have a presence by just standing there, but he is more than that. The Rock would have the same presence if he were 5’8” – he just has the proverbial “it.”
Chris has just spent the last eight years in the army, returning home to relax and catch his breath. “Get tired of being all you can be?” his old friend Jay Hamilton Jr. (Neal McDonough, “Minority Report”) jokes. “No, I’m still all I can be,” Chris replies. He will go on to prove this time and time again throughout the course of the movie. Chris is the kind of guy everyone wants to have in their town. He is noble, strong, and always remains true to his convictions.
He wants to go back to work at the mill where his father worked. But in his time gone, the mill has closed, and the main business in town is a casino run by the devious Hamilton. McDonough does a good job as the smarmy villain. Sure, it’s been done before, but he has the right look for this kind of character. It goes without saying that honest gambling isn’t exactly the only thing going on within the walls of his casino.
When Chris left, it was a tight-knit little community. But now, as his friend Ray Templeton (Johnny Knoxville) tells him, “this isn’t exactly home anymore.” The biggest, most distressing difference is the presence of drugs. When Chris finds that his young nephew Pete (Khleo Thomas) has taken crystal meth, he finds out what the audience knew all along: it’s coming from the guys at the casino. When he goes to the casino to exact revenge, he is savagely beaten and “left for dead.”
The problem in this town is that Hamilton not only controls the casino, he controls everything else as well. When Chris tries to press charges, the sheriff tells him “in a language he can understand” that the casino is a “no fly zone.”
Chris presses charges anyway, and the courtroom scene is one that could have wrecked the film completely, but it didn’t. Chris decides to represent himself, and in most films that is a recipe for disaster. But The Rock plays it straight, and he shows that somewhere down the road, there could be some drama in his future.
Since the police won’t do anything, Chris decides to run for sheriff and take Sheriff Watkins’ (Michael Bowen) job. Of course he wins, and then it’s Chris Vaughn’s brand of justice that will run the town and restore order. Unfortunately for the bad guys, Chris Vaughn’s brand of justice includes brandishing a huge stick – and he knows how to use it.
Chris will enlist just one deputy sheriff, his friend Ray. A former alcoholic, Ray even did jail time for drug trafficking. He is completely back on the wagon, and his past experience will help Chris tremendously in tracking down the bad guys’ lair, so to speak.
Knoxville, much like The Rock, would hardly be expected to give a credible dramatic performance, but he does. While known mostly for the MTV show and subsequent movie “Jackass,” Knoxville has been a part of show business since he was very young, and here he demonstrates his natural instincts as a performer. He certainly has moments of humor, but his character is very real, particularly during a vicious fight scene near the end of the film.
Two more characters that make the film feel more real are Chris’s parents Chris Sr. (John Beasley) and Connie (Barbara Tarbuck). Just like The Rock’s real parents (his father is black and his mother is Samoan), Chris Vaughn’s parents are racially mixed – his father is black and his mother is white. This doesn’t figure into the plot at all, as lesser movies might have done. It’s simply a matter of fact, and no one even mentions it.
Of course there is also the female lead, Chris’s ex-girlfriend Michelle (Kristen Wilson), a true cookie-cutter character. She works in the casino at first, then quits and gets back into Chris’s good graces (not to mention his arms). Being a cookie-cutter character in a film like this is hardly detrimental, for in a small town like the one depicted, those kinds of people do exist.
“Walking Tall” is a solid film with a positive message: stand up for what’s right, and stand up for yourself no matter what. The Rock perfectly embodies this message with a performance that builds on his strong work in “The Rundown.” If there’s any justice in Hollywood, The Rock will be walking tall for a long time to come.