**** (out of 5)
April 2, 2004
The Rock as CHRIS VAUGHN
Johnny Knoxville as RAY TEMPLETON
Neal McDonough as JAY HAMILTON
Kristen Wilson as MICHELLE VAUGHN
Ashley Scott as DENI
Khleo Thomas as PETE VAUGHN
Directed by: Kevin Bray
BY KEVIN CARR
Time heals all wounds. Not just for relationships and issues of the heart, but for bad movies as well. Why else can substandard movies still be considered classics? It makes me wonder sometimes what rates as a classic. Sure, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Psycho” are always going to be classics because they stand up to movies made even today.
But for films like the original “Walking Tall,” it’s hard to believe that it actually was ever considered a good film – even back in 1973. While Joe Don Baker may have had more in common with the original Sheriff Buford Pusser than The Rock does, he’s not exactly a standard for an action hero. (Fans of “Mystery-Science Theater 3000” will always remember his galvanizing performance in the odious title role of “Mitchell.”)
Unlike the original “Walking Tall,” this version’s promotional material says, “Inspired by a true story,” not “Based on a true story.” This may seem a small distinction, but in a day when the film shares the multiplex with another “true” story film – “Hidalgo” – it’s nice to see some honesty in the credits.
While the original “Walking Tall” was presented as a fictionalized account of Sheriff Pusser’s life, this new version is only inspired by the legend. Instead of the South, this version takes place in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of ex-wrestler Buford Pusser, the main character is named Chris Vaughn and is played by an ex-wrestler. Instead of battling moonshiners and pimps, he battles a casino and drug dealer.
However, the basic story is still the same. The theme of one man standing up for what’s right is still there, and it can be very inspiring in this sense. Vaughn comes home to his small town to find things have changed. The mill – the town’s main source of income – has shut down while a casino has opened on the outskirts of town.
When Vaughn visits the casino, he finds one of the dealers cheating. After confronting the dealer, the casino security get their hands on him, beat him and cut him, then leave him for dead on the side of a road. After his recovery, his nephew is rushed to the hospital after an overdose of crystal meth. Vaughn tracks the drugs down to the casino and busts up the place. The incident inspires Vaughn to run for sheriff to clean up the county.
There’s not a lot of surprise in the plot, I’ll admit. But the film accomplishes what it needs to. Sure, the earlier scenes with casino-owner Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough) are a bit heavy handed (including a “friendly” football game where he cheats to win), it makes a decent strawman villain. In a film like this, you shouldn’t be looking for any deep meaning in the bad guy’s motives.
But it is nice to see a film now and then that doesn’t glorify drug use – even so-called “soft” drugs like marijuana. The film doesn’t get preachy about the drugs, either, which is nice. Backed by The Rock’s alma mater, the WWW, it provides a good role model for the younger wrestling fans.
It’s clear that The Rock is trying to pattern his career after Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like Schwarzenegger, The Rock comes across as very likable on film, which should help him in his acting career choice better than it did other former wrestlers like Jesse Ventura and Roddy Piper.
Although The Rock got fame as an actor in “The Mummy Returns” by playing a villain (as Schwarzenegger did with 1984’s “The Terminator”), he quickly moved into the role of action hero with movies like “The Scorpion King” and “The Rundown.” He has a likability about him that can connect with an audience. And while he’s no Laurence Olivier, he’s no Joe Don Baker, either.
In many ways, this is better than the original. The acting is better. The story is more cohesive. The prostitutes are much, much better looking. And The Rock is far more likable than Joe Don Baker ever could have been. In a sea of crappy Hollywood remakes as of late (including “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Big Bounce”), you could do a lot worse.