In this movie Dwayne Johnson plays The Rock er, make that Buford H. Pusser er, make that Chris Vaughn. Oh, heck. It’s not like it matters.
Here’s the deal: A few years ago folks in Hollywood noticed that they had plum run out of ideas for movies.
That’s it, boys, a tired studio executive said, slipping his pocket watch back into his vest pocket and donning his fedora. It’s time to close up shop. Time to let Universal Studios go back to being a dairy farm. Time to let the Warner Brothers water tower go back to holding water. Time to blow this popsicle stand and get back to leading our lives again.
But wait! said a young, wet-behind-the-ears studio executive, his eyes still twinkling with one last wisp of stardust. I’ve got an idea!
What’s that? his colleagues said in unison.
Well, he explained, if we’ve run out of ideas for new movies, why don’t we go back and make all of the old movies all over again?
Pshaw! the tired studio executive said. If people want to see all the old movies, they can just go rent them or buy them on video. They have no reason to come back to the theaters to see them.
Ahh, the young exec said, but we can make movies so old that people won’t remember them. And we can sell them as ‘newer, hipper, edgier,’ with flashier special effects, louder explosions, cruder humor, fouler language, less comprehensible action sequences, less clothing, and more incompetent actors! Why, we can churn out a flood of medium-budget, moderately-successful, eminently-forgettable films that will keep us gainfully employed for years!
The seasoned exec thought a minute, chewing on a toothpick, as he always did before making a patented, Hollywood snap judgment.
Tarnation, boys! Time’s a-wastin’! We’ve got movies to re-make! he exclaimed. As Mel Brooks said in a film we may one day clone: ‘Gentlemen, we must save our phony jobs!’
And so all of Hollywood rejoiced. And the execs continued to receive their grossly swollen paychecks for several more years, even if the Oscar pickings were embarrassingly thin at times.
But eventually the bottom of the barrel was reached a second time. Soon there was nothing to remake except klunkers like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, believe it or not, 1970s Joe Don Baker films.
Yes, it’s true. Though some warned that the re-making of Joe Don Baker films was one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse, Hollywood steeled its nerve, did lunch with the right people, signed contracts, and thus was born the 2004 remake of Walking Tall.
The original, 1973 Walking Tall starred the ever-awful Joe Don Baker as Sheriff Buford H. Pusser of McNairy County, Tennessee, who was known for carrying a four-foot club with which to hit malefactor moonshiners upside the head. He had a string of low-budget, macho hick-sploitation films made about him in the 1970s, and even a TV series (like The Dukes of Hazzard, only with the sheriff as the good guy).
But just when you thought it was safe to go back into the Tennessee hills, Walking Tall has risen from the abyss and is walking tall again.
This time The Rock (née Dwayne Johnson) plays the plucky sheriff, only now he isn’t from McNairy County, Tennessee but Kitsap County, Washington. And his name isn’t Buford H. Pusser, it’s Chris Vaughn.
When we first meet Vaughn, he’s coming back to his old stomping grounds, after having made good in the Army Special Forces. The film starts off like a Pacific Northwest version of The Quiet Man, with Vaughn having put his kick-butt, violent past behind him.
Yet the quiet doesn’t remain, because the film then becomes Back to the Future: Part II. Vaughn discovers that old school rival Biff Tannen I mean, Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough) has turned the town into an evil parody of itself by building a new casino, having scantily-clad women gyrating all over the place, and selling drugs to children.
All of Vaughn’s school buddies have been reduced to pathetic losers, presumably by the how to boil a frog slowly principle, and there are no virtuous, strong-willed folks around to whip the place back into shape.
Though Vaughn has been introduced as Mr. Mild Manners and is almost clean enough that he squeaks, he suddenly snaps and begins to commit assault, battery, mayhem, and willful destruction of property with you guessed it a four foot beam of wood.
But before he can take the beam out of his opponent’s eye, he is up on charges in court, where he fires his lawyer, insists on representing himself, and argues for jury nullification so that he can run for town sheriff and Kick Butt.
The cowardly townspeople, unwilling to stand up for themselves but willing to cast their votes for a Real Man, oblige him, and soon The Rock is continuing his firing spree by firing the entire county police department so that he can do all the law-enforcing by himself with the help of his ex-druggie, convicted-felon sidekick (Johnny Knoxville). Also assisting him in this task is a huge, oversized novelty baseball bat made from his faithful wooden beam.
Fortunately, the giant baseball bat doesn’t help out on too many cases (The Rock doesn’t have the swaggering, 1970s Southern sheriff mojo that he needs to carry it around without looking completely absurd).
The convicted-felon deputy also gets creative assistance in one fight scene from an inanimate object, and afterwards a bad guy exclaims in disbelief: You stabbed me with a potato peeler?!
There are a lot of laughs in this film, and to give credit where credit is due, some of them are intentional.
There’s also some creative camera work and editing in the film. Though the fight scenes are as unintelligible as many these days, there are some montages that actually display creative thought on the part of the director.
You have to admire a film that has the guts to take huge risks, such as when The Rock does the rock-stupid thing of firing the entire county police force, or when the main villain points out the central plot hole in the movie: Since a casino is basically a license to print money, why would I want to mess that up by selling drugs?
There are also some good moral messages in the film. From what we see onscreen, we get the distinct impression that casinos, drugs, drinking to excess, and having women gyrate suggestively all over the place are Bad Things. Unfortunately, the film enjoys some of these (particularly the last) a little too much, and it take juvenile glee at unrestrained violence for the sake of making the heroes appear over-the-top cool.
One last thought: What’s the deal with the whole relocation to Washington state thing? The opening credits carry a title card that says Inspired by a true story, which is Hollywood code for We made 98% of it up. There’s probably more actual truth in the film than in Hidalgo, but it seems to me that if you’re going to make any pretense of basing a movie on real life then you ought to at least keep certain basic facts about the main characters the same.
Buford Pusser was named Buford Pusser, not Chris Vaughn. And he lived in Tennessee, not Washington. This kind of tampering with the identity of a historical figure isn’t acceptable. It silences the voices of real people and places. It would be like taking Alex Haley’s Roots and continuing to call it Roots while remaking it as the story of Irish immigrants who came to America as indentured servants.
This Walking Tall doesn’t even try to shake the hick-sploitation thing. That has been around Hollywood since at least the time of Ma and Pa Kettle, and it continues to give rise to things like the Fox TV-abomination The Simple Life. In this film, all of The Rock’s buddies are Pacific Northwest hicks, and during fight scenes the film even has a bluesy, honky-tonk soundtrack with electric guitars pretending to be harmonicas.
As far as I’m concerned, this cartoon of a movie would have still worked as well as it does if the cast had simply adopted Tennessee accents and been allowed to play the characters and locations with their real-world names.
As it is, the film needs a title card that says The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to disguise the ethnicity of the subjects.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.