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Walking Tall

  Walking Tall
Johnny Knoxville smells what The Rock is cookin'.

© 2004, MGM
All Rights Reserved

Former military officer Chris Vaughn (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) has returned to his small town home to reclaim the life that he tossed away years earlier. Once back in town, it's clear things have changed. Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough, "Timeline"), a former high school friend of Vaughn's, has opened a casino, and is also dealing drugs and women to citizens on the side. Vaughn is aghast at the level of corruption in his backyard, but when he puts his foot down, thugs beat him nearly to death and the local lawmen turn their backs. Vowing to change things, Vaughn runs for sheriff and wins. Then, armed with a 2x4 and the help of a long-time buddy (Johnny Knoxville, "Jackass"), Vaughn sets out to get rid of crime for good.

Based on true events, the "hicksploitation" vigilante epic, "Walking Tall," was a monster hit in 1973, and made an unforgettable (and unlikely) star out of actor Joe Don Baker. Now coming to the screen again, the strong-armed exploits of Sheriff Buford Pusser have been changed to the finely tuned reckoning of Chris Vaughn. And the messy, good ole boy violence of the bygone era has been replaced with WWE style and execution.

There's a whole lot wrong with this new remake, but let's start with what's right: Dwayne Johnson. Yes, the credits list him as "The Rock," and his fan base only seems to respond to that unfortunate moniker. But underneath the theatricality of his wresting heritage lies the heart of a terrifically composed action star. Trouble is, we haven't seen that yet. Sit through junk like "The Scorpion King" and the wildly over-directed "The Rundown," and you can see that Johnson is the only thing worthwhile in his feature films. "Walking Tall" (IMDb listing) is classic "Rock," since the filmmakers have stripped the tale down to action sequence upon action sequence. The only hope is for Johnson to bridge these moments together with whatever character elements remain, and in "Tall" he does a good job with what he has to work with. Vaughn isn't the most articulate character around, preferring to speak through stares and chunks of lumber. Johnson is such a compelling presence onscreen, that he makes it work. You believe Vaughn's frustrations, and applaud his retributions. That's the trick of this story, to get the audience behind criminal behavior under the guise of noble intentions. Johnson makes the theme stick throughout with his steely focus and natural charisma.

The film's highlight is when Vaughn, filled with rage over his nephew's meth overdose, goes calling to Hamilton's casino with a 2x4 and a serious lack of patience. It degenerates into Stephen J. Cannell stuntwork far too quickly, but there's a good five minutes in that sequence that is as pure cinema as you're going to get. All thanks to Johnson's raging performance.

With a dear-God-are-they-kidding? running time of 75 minutes, there's simply no room allowed for "Tall" to breathe and resemble anything near a normal narrative. The opening titles should spell out the film's intentions right away: "A WWE Films Production" and "Produced by Vince McMahon." The story has been gutted, the violence has been trimmed, both severely and shoddily, to a harmless PG-13, and the action that does remain looks like a mixture of "Smackdown!" and "Road House" outtakes. Everything in the new "Tall" happens fast and without reason, including missing subplots featuring actress Ashley Scott as Vaughn's old flame, Vaughn's past of disappointments, and the entire "Vaughn for sheriff" backstory. Of course, none of the fight sequences are cut down at all. Instead they are left to rot in their increasing outlandishness and numbness. Director Kevin Bray made a nice debut with the Ice Cube actioner, "All About the Benjamins," but he smashes "Walking Tall" to smithereens with his ineptitude and weakness in allowing the film to be pared down so that its appeal relies entirely on base sensibilities. Sheriff Buford's story deserved better than this.

Three films now, and I'm still waiting for Dwayne Johnson to find a picture that lives up to his talents. I have patience, but if the future holds more messes like "Walking Tall," I'll soon be mourning the loss of what could've been a great action film star.

Filmfodder Grade: D+

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