THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"WALKING TALL"

The original Walking Tall came out in 1973. It was based on the true story of Buford Pusser, a Tennessee sheriff who crusaded to rid his county of crime and corruption. A very famous image came out of that movie: Joe Don Baker, playing Sheriff Pusser, wielding the four-foot stick that he used to inflict beatings upon the bad guys. So successful was Walking Tall that it spawned a few sequels (with Bo Svenson taking over the lead role), as well as a current remake.

Dwayne ďThe RockĒ Johnson stars as the newly-monikered Chris Vaughn, a Special Forces veteran who returns to his hometown in rural Washington. Chris assumes he can get a job at the local mill (after all, itís where practically everyone works), but he is surprised to find it has been shut down. Now the main employer in town is the local casino, owned by his old rival Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough). Along with some old buddies including Ray (Johnny Knoxville), Chris pays a visit to the place. There he finds an old flame, Deni (Ashley Scott), working as a stripper. He also finds the casino engaging in drug dealing and deceptive gaming practices. When Chris raises a fuss about this, the casinoís security force zaps him with a stun gun, tortures him, and leaves him for dead.

Upon recovery, he tries to take legal action against the casino, but the local authorities refuse to do anything because they are in Hamiltonís back pocket. Chris takes matters into his own hands, barging into the casino with a giant piece of cedar. He proceeds to smash the casino Ė and the security staff Ė to bits. On this matter, the cops actually do something, arresting Chris and putting him on trial. The prosecution makes it look like the casino employees were just doing their jobs when a madman with some lumber came in swinging.

A pissed-off Chris announces to the town that heís going to run for sheriff, and magically he has that position in the very next scene. Itís unclear whether the election was simply held the same week as his trial or whether months had passed during which he ran a very serious campaign. Probably itís just a case of screenwriting made easy. He immediately begins busting the chops of Hamilton and his goons. When things go too far, the casino owner launches an attack to kill Chris and his family.

Walking Tall is filled with scenes that stretch credibility, such as when Chris fires his lawyer and defends himself in court. He gives what has to be one of the least convincing defense speeches in the history of cinema. Also perplexing is the process by which he becomes sheriff. If the casino, as weíre told, is the chief employer in the county, then why would people vote for a man who was bound and determined to run the place out of business? Other scenes come off as laughable, such as the one in which Hamiltonís goons open fire on the police station with Chris and Deni inside. Theyíve just finished having sex so sheís half naked. Rather than getting dressed real quick, Deni grabs a gun and runs around shooting Ė in her bra.

Honestly, I could have lived with the movieís gaps in logic. Lots of films have them, especially action pictures like this one. Besides, thereís always something satisfying about seeing a righteous hero (or heroine) kicking the butts of loathsome criminals. In a kind of bloodthirsty way, Walking Tall provides a catharsis. Sure itís manipulative and knee-jerk, but is there really anything wrong with that once in a while? It helps that The Rock is an appealing movie star. Heís got the right look for an action hero, plus he has a sense of humor. His charisma would normally have been enough to help me coast over the sillier elements of the story and just soak up the vengeful atmosphere.

There is, however, a much bigger problem than faulty logic. The reason I canít recommend Walking Tall is that it fundamentally lacks a sense of outrage. What would make someone grab a big olí slab of wood and use it to bash in the heads of criminals? Good old fashioned anger, thatís what. It seems to me that Chrisís motivation shouldnít be so noble and heroic; it should be borne out of something bordering on outright hatred of the drug dealing scum who are poisoning the town. Thatís what makes a story like this work. Walking Tall is allegedly about one man taking the law into his own hands. I believe that the film desperately needed to convey Chrisís utter outrage at the situation. That might have drawn us Ė the audience Ė in, given us a reason to really care about all the ass-whuppiní we see on screen. But the movie takes a much simpler view: Chris is a do-gooder who wants to make his hometown a safer place for the good of the children. Thatís nice in theory, but cinematically itís far less satisfying. (I was too young to see the original when it came out, but Iím told it has much more of what Iím talking about.)

Walking Tall runs an hour and 26 minutes. The end credits run a full 11 minutes, which leaves only 75 minutes of actual story. At that length, you can tell that there was a lot of room to fill in some details. Had the filmmakers not been so lazy and not so inclined to take the easy way out, this might have been satisfying action fare. As it stands, the movie has a lot going on in the margins but thereís a big empty space in the middle. And that space needed to be filled with rage.

( 1/2 out of four)


Walking Tall is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence, sexual content, drug material and language. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.

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