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Walking Tall

Director: Kevin Bray
Cast: The Rock, Johnny Knoxville, Neal McDonough, John Beasley, Kristen Wilson, Khleo Thomas, Ashley Scott, Michael Bowen

(MGM; US theatrical: 2 Apr 2004; 2004)

Big Stick

After eight years with the U.S. Special Forces, Sergeant Chris Vaughn (The Rock) has fond memories of his old home in Washington State. He especially misses the smell of cedar chips at the mill where his dad used to work. But when Chris returns, bad news awaits him.


The town has changed. As Chris walks from the ferry to his parents’ house, he passes signs of trouble: stores advertise porn and liquor, a mother has left her infant on the sidewalk while she scores drugs in an alley, the mill is closed. He frowns. Sheriff Watkins (Michael Bowen) happens by, just in time to explain, “It’s simple economics.” The hardware store couldn’t compete with Home Depot and the mill couldn’t compete with the casino.


So far, so like the 1973 version of Walking Tall. Like the original, Kevin Bray’s movie is “inspired by the true story” of Buford Pusser, the righteous underdog who straightened out his corrupted Tennessee town by swinging a big stick. Unlike the first film, this one is set in the Northwest and produced by Vince McMahon. It’s also considerably streamlined, with regard to motivation and action. The first time, Buford (Joe Don Baker) was married with children, had a beat-down red pickup and a black best friend (Felton Perry). Where Buford’s father (Noah Beery, Jr.) referred to this friend as a “pickaninny,” this time, the fact that Chris’ father (John Beasley) is black and his mother (Barbara Tarbuck) white is a non-issue.


That said, wifeless Chris will need solid, extremely personal reasons to pick up that celebrated four-by-four. And so he has a family to defend: his sister Michelle (Kristen Wilson) lives with their parents with her son, Pete (Khleo Thomas), who’s just rebellious enough to need schooling by a father figure. Chris looks the part, too, shot from low angles so he’s imposing, but charming too, in the way that The Rock can’t seem to help but be. “Did you ever kill anyone?” asks Pete. Yes, answers Chris. “Was it fun?” “No.” And that’s enough.


Chris has couple of other convenient connections in town. Number one, his childhood friend Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough), owns the casino (his 1/16 Apache background allows him to do so, as by state law, casino ownership reserved for Native Americans, an odd backstory contortion for a character who seems the whitest man on the planet). Also conveniently, Chris’s ex-love interest is currently available. Deni (Ashley Scott) works as a peep-show pole dancer at the casino, incarnating still another sign the town needs a serious cleansing (she might use her own serious something: a wisp of a character with a preference for halter tops, she only seems less resourceful and shallower when she she’s not pole-dancing). The moral imperative becomes clear when a fight erupts at the casino, leading to Chris’ severe beating by Jay’s surly thugs, an ordeal that ends when the chief batterer carves up his chest with a box cutter and leaves him to die by the highway.


This assault—followed by the discovery that the casino dealers are selling crystal meth to Pete and his friends—grants Chris all the righteous underdog status he needs. Such is the logic of the vigilante film: the hero, no matter how large his gun, his chest, or his stick, must be utterly victimized before he can launch into justified aggression. In this case, Chris takes initial aim at the casino itself, arriving with his gun in hand, then deciding to take his stick inside: he destroys slot machines, poker tables, mirrors that shatter spectacularly, as well as one importunate goon’s arm, loudly.


The demonstration lands him in court, where Jay’s lawyers plainly outclass his own weasel of a public defender. Just when he’s about to lose his case, Chris fires the PD, stands before the jury, and rips open his shirt to reveal his ferocious box cutter scars. This scene doesn’t quite pack the punch of Buford Pusser removing his bright red short—in a sea of white ones—to show his disfigured torso, in part because most folks are used to and like seeing The Rock’s chest, even when artfully marked up. When Baker did it 30 years ago, the gesture revealed a regular, if tall, guy’s severe damage. This time, it’s great showmanship.


In keeping with that theme, Chris’ offer to run for sheriff if he’s acquitted seems logical more than startling. In the Age of the Governator, The Rock seems the ideal candidate. And so, the jury speedily pronounces him not guilty, the town elects him sheriff, and Chris appoints his best friend and recovering addict Ray (Johnny Knoxville) as his new deputy. The action that follows is brutal and swift, comprised of the expected shootouts, explosions, speeding trucks, and, in the inevitable domestic invasion (the villains attack Chris’ family), a knockdown fight in which Ray wields a potato peeler and fry pan.


So streamlined, reactionary, and reductive is this plot that once Chris recovers from his wounds, he spends little time between encounters, and essentially at no cost to him (save for that first, admittedly awful, attack). True, he does lose his great big shiny truck, but this Walking Tall offers no context and no particular lessons learned, except that big sticks work. Back in the day, Pusser’s wretched suffering, amid the townspeople’s belated decision to take action, closes the film; that is, they make a bonfire of the casino’s accoutrements while wearing their funeral suits, so the gleefulness of the payback is explicitly not enough and not a little absurd. In 2004, Chris engages in a lazily smackdownish encounter with Jay (ludicrous on so many levels that it elicited laughter at the preview screening), then rides high, with best friend, girlfriend, and family intact, his enemies vanquished.


These changes in expectations and demeanors speak to Buford Pusser and Chris Vaughn’s different personas, eras, and wars. Where Buford was ordinary, Chris is extraordinary. Where Buford, bedraggled, disillusioned, and occasionally weak, survived the Vietnam war and battled full-on racism at home, Chris returns from unnamed engagements, presumably in the Middle East, perhaps elsewhere, where racism is mostly unspoken, enemies and friends shift sides daily, and authority is by definition suspect.


Most importantly, this new war, despite promises that it will go on for years and earnest praise for hardworking, anonymous troops, is fueled by super-sized fictions: abstract heroism and invisible ambitions stand in for material gains. Charming and correct, a savvy media star and self-incorporating product, The Rock embodies our own cynical moment, when the show is what matters.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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