5-Word 365 #222 – Walking Tall

I really can’t think of anything to say here today. Never mind, on with the film…

Walking Tall

Mildly entertaining but fundamentally flawed.

Chris Vaughn is returning home to rural Washington state after serving as a Sergeant in the Special Forces. The town he comes back to is not the same one he left; what was once a thriving small town is now mostly boarded up and decrepit. Vaughn’s old school friend Jay closed his family’s lumber mill as soon as he inherited it and opened a casino instead, with a side-business in crystal meth. After being beaten almost to death by Jay’s goons, Vaughn decides enough is enough. He is going to run for sheriff and clean up the town, with a big stick.

You know those episodes of the A-Team where the guys would find themselves in some backwater small town that was ruled over by a despotic local businessman who owned just about everything and everybody? Well this feels like the (barely) feature-length vesion of that hoary old chestnut, if the team was actually just one guy and he had a chunk of wood instead of a van full of guns. But of course it’s not an A-Team episode; this story goes back a little further than that.

In 1973 the original Walking Tall was released starring Joe Don Baker as the real-life former pro wrestler turned sheriff Buford Pusser who cleaned up his Tennessee home town with a 4ft long club. Thirty years later the remake appeared, with a few changes. Now called Vaughn, the sheriff would be a soldier instead of a wrestler, but they would just get a wrestler to play him instead. Enter Dwayne Johnson.

I’m a little freaked out by the way Ashley Scott is staring at me.

As one of his earliest starring roles, he was still being billed as “The Rock”, but he is not a lifeless lump of granite. Even before his move from the squared circle to the silver screen, Johnson’s charisma and magnetism were undeniable. Aside from one or two brief moments though, Vaughn is one of the most stoic characters from Johnson’s early career. It is never said outright, but there is an implication that he was involved in some bad stuff while in uniform and now he’s home to find his town being insidiously eaten apart.

On its release in 2004, Walking Tall was generally panned by critics and I can understand why. The plot is simplistic, the drama almost non-existent, and the romantic subplot is as basic as it gets. Never mind fifty, this flick doesn’t even have one shade of grey. There is just “Good” (Rock and Johnny Knoxville) versus “Evil”, in the delightfully smarmy shape of Neal McDonough and his goons. But as poorly developed as the story and characters are – despite four credited screenwriters – there is one thing Walking Tall does have: nostalgia. The film doesn’t feel like it was made in 2004. It feels like a lost flick from the seventies. The action amounts to fisticuffs and two (concurrent) close-quarters gunfights, with everyone but the trained soldier being a believably crap shot. It’s not enough to make it good, but it does make it somewhat entertaining to sit through.

No matter what movie he’s in, you can always rely on Neal McDonough to give good evil-face.

The cast make all the right noises, but aside from Johnson, McDonough and Knoxville, none of them have anything to work with. It is Knoxville’s Ray who gets the closest thing to a backstory and that amounts to him telling Chris that he was a junkie for a while. Of course this character moment only exists so that Chris has someone to ask about the drug trade after being sworn in as sheriff. There are moments where you get the feeling that something specific is missing, as if it’s the edit that’s to blame. Occasionally someone will say something that refers to something else, but without any context explaining the something else. What you’re left with are these odd non sequiturs that just make you scratch your head.

From a glance at director Kevin Bray’s list of credits (mostly music videos and TV episodes) he would probably be considered a bit of a journeyman. He does show some flashes of inspiration though, including a POV shot of a character falling backwards through a window. He also demonstrates a neat way with a montage: the story of the town’s decline is told in the first three minutes in a dialogue-free sequence of Chris walking home and seeing the place for the first time in years.

With a better developed script and a little more room to breathe this could have been a pretty good, old-school action movie. Coming in at less that 70 minutes – plus credits – it just feels like a half-done throwback; a pointless remake.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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