Dir: Kevin Bray. 2004. US. 86mins.
Former wrestler turned action hero The Rock stars in this updated and reconstituted revenge saga based on the true story of Sheriff Buford Pusser, whose vigilante exploits in a small Tennessee town set the stage for the 1970's trilogy of 'hickspolitation' films on which this slipshod studio remake is based. Core fans of The Rock flocked to US cinemas on opening weekend for a serviceable haul of $15.6m, though steady business might prove unlikely in the face of upcoming action films like The Punisher and Kill Bill Vol 2.
While lacking the comic charisma of Arnold Schwarzenegger, to whom he is routinely compared, The Rock proves oddly endearing in a fleeting movie (at 86 minutes, it goes by in a flash) that should enthrall teenage males and other Rock aficionados despite the critical drubbing the film received upon release. US opening-weekend numbers are encouraging if not slightly disappointing for this $56m production, which will most likely see the bulk of its business in the ancillary market.
This Walking Tall is a far cry from the humid pressure cooker of the source films, which starred Joe Don Baker and Bo Svenson as the stick-wielding renegade sheriff in the original and its two sequels respectively. It took four screenwriters to re-imagine Buford Pusser as mixed-race Chris Vaughn, a combat veteran of an unspecified war who returns after an eight-year absence to his Pacific Northwest home. There he discovers that a once-idyllic lumber community has been transformed by sleazy casino operator - and former rival - Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough), whose glitzy fleshpot of vice has eradicated local businesses like the cedar mill that employed Vaughn's black father (John Beasley).
Vaughn and his friends, including fidgety sidekick Ray Templeton (Johnny Knoxville), are invited to the Vegas-like casino for free booze, blackjack and broads by Hamilton, who's in cahoots with the local sheriff (Michael Bowen), hell bent on re-election. Vaughn discovers his high school sweetheart (Ashley Wilson, a dead ringer for Britney Spears) working as an erotic dancer, then exposes a loaded dice scam at the betting tables, prompting a heated ruckus that results in Vaughn's expulsion from the casino.
Later Hamilton attempts to hire the hulking Vaughn as his chief of security but when a casino bartender is discovered peddling crystal methamphetamine to Vaughn's troubled nephew Pete (Khleo Thomas), loyal family man Vaughn takes revenge. Arriving at the casino with a massive cedar post, he proceeds to lay waste to the place. Hamilton's goons retaliate by slicing up Vaughn's chest with a box cutter and pilfering his beloved special-forces medallion.
Threatened with 18 years in prison unless he pleads guilty to the casino rampage, Vaughn convinces the jury - in one of the most ludicrous courtroom exchanges since Madonna's Body Of Evidence - to acquit him of all charges in exchange for his promise to run for sheriff and rid the town of Hamilton and his goons. With Ray as his reluctant deputy sheriff and his trusty wooden post a symbol of renegade justice, Vaughn takes on the drug dealers and casino scum that highjacked his hometown into a hotbed of crime and corruption.
Ostensibly a lament for small-town American values and mom-and-pop economics threatened by the Goliath of unchecked capitalism, Walking Tall arrives Stateside in a flurry of redemption-themed works that began two weeks ago with the belated US release of Dogville and continues in coming weeks with The Alamo, The Punisher, Kill Bill Vol 2 and Man On Fire.
Walking Tall emerges as the weakest of this spring's crop of payback movies, due in no small part to a script that is laughably amateurish and sexist, with a cast of supporting characters described in the credits as Addict Mother, Exotic Beauty, Lap Dancer, Casino Trashy Women and Wet T-Shirt Girls. Knoxville brings some welcome comic relief to his role as a recovering addict, reprising his Jackass shenanigans in what is essentially a series of fight scenes strung together by a wooden revenge plot that was far more compelling in the sweltering, Deep South setting of the original films.
Walking Tall, like Jackass, is also giddily homoerotic, devoting nearly as much screen time to tight male derrieres and ripped pecs as surgically enhanced jiggling female breasts. Cavity-search and prison rape jokes abound, and dialogue screams man-on-man love: 'Need some help'' Pete asks a shirtless Vaughn at one point. 'Naah,' he replies. 'I'm just milkin' it.' Ray praises Vaughn for his elevation to sheriff with the admonition 'Soon you'll be frisking guys' crotches.' Of a jailed baddie, Ray retorts: 'He's probably blowing on someone's dice right now.' It's all par for the course in a testosterone-addled saga rife with the phallic imagery of men beating other men with wooden posts.
The Rock, nee Dwayne Johnson, holds his own as an action hero in Walking Tall but suffers through flaccid dialogue composed by third-rate screenwriters - it's the actor's commanding physical presence that rules this picture. Less cocksure than the grunt-prone Vin Diesel and more animated than the brooding heroes of the Marvel Comics films, the former Worldwide Wrestling Federation stalwart brings a welcome sweetness and sensitivity to an otherwise barbaric milieu of ham-fisted brawling, automatic gunfire and strippers in distress.
He's also adept at playing opposite sidekicks, as he proved in last autumn's The Rundown - known in some territories as Welcome To The Jungle - co-starring Seann William Scott. The most memorable scenes in Walking Tall involve the congenial interplay between The Rock and Knoxville, whose goofiness in the face of his partner's stern resolve makes for an unexpected secret weapon. This is the rare action film in which the fight scenes are secondary to the male bonding between two unlikely allies.
Prod cos: Hyde Park Entertainment, Mandeville Films, Burke/Samples/Foster Productions, WWE Films
US dist: MGM/UA
Int'l dist: 20th Fox
Prods: Ashok Amritraj, David Hoberman, Jim Burke, Lucas Foster, Paul Schiff, Keith Samples, Vince McMahon
Scr: David Klass, Channing Gibson, David Levien & Brian Koppelman, based on a screenplay by Mort Briskin
Cine: Glen MacPherson
Ed: George Bowers, Robert Ivison
Prod des: Brent Thomas
Music: Graeme Revell
Main cast: The Rock, Johnny Knoxville, Neal McDonough, Kristen Wilson, Ashley Scott, Khleo Thomas, John Beasley, Barbara Tarbuck, Michael Bowen, Kevin Durand