It was an honor and a privilege to play the role of someone who had that much integrity and heart, and yes! Picking up the big piece of wood and handing out all day long fresh country ass-whuppings!
— The Rock, commentary track, Walking Tall
The costar, the four-by-four.
— Robert Ivison, commentary track, Walking Tall
“If you’re looking for an art-house commentary,” warns the Rock at the start of the DVD of Walking Tall. “Then I suggest you probably slip in Gosford Park if you have it… But if you wanna sit back and relax, and crack open a cold one, you sit back and relax. We’re gonna be entertained.” Okay then. This commentary, and the other one, by director Kevin Bray, co-editor Robert Ivison, and cinematographer Glen MacPherson, are indeed entertaining. The Rock cannot take himself too seriously, and we love him for it: as his character, Chris Vaughn — based on Buford Pusser but not him exactly — walks from the ferry to his parents’ home, he laughs, noting that all this walking takes three minutes under the opening titles, but would take nine months in real life.
And yes, the film begins as Chris, after eight years with the U.S. Special Forces, returns home to Washington state, where he has fond memories. 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 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), rebellious in that way where he’s seeking guidance from 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, of whom the Rock notes, “He has a nice ass too, in case anybody’s wondering”), owns the casino (his 1/16 Apache background allows him to do so, as, by state law, casino ownership is reserved for Native Americans, an odd backstory contortion for a character who looks like 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 (editor Robert Ivison observes on the commentary track: “I just feel sorry for her having a job where she has to do this routine to ‘Fire’ every day. Now that‘s a job”).
Deni also serves to soften up trained killer Chris. Bray says of the Rock, “I think that’s one of the things that’s really wonderful about Rock, and unique and new about him as an action hero, is that he’s approachable and he lets you see a softer side of himself.” More importantly, thematically speaking, Deni incarnates still another sign that 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 becomes less resourceful and shallower when she she’s not pole-dancing to “Fire”). Chris’ 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. (In addition to the commentary tracks, the DVD includes a short documentary on the stunts, “Fight the Good Fight,” where the Rock says of the first casino fight, “Basically, all hell breaks loose in an old fashioned, stompin’ a mud hole, in your candy-ass fight.”)
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. As well, as Bray says, “I think that’s something that’s pretty modern about the movie, that we kind of jumped over the race card or the race issue, and just said, these are Americans, or people, I don’t even know about Americans, just a family dealing with something; that’s something I’m really proud of about the movie.” Be that as it may, even the family motive is helped by the underdog status, as per 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 shirt (set against 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, less about showing wounds than asserting Rockness.
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 an 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. Ray’s first line is his wholly impassioned greeting to Chris (“Hello puddin’!”), ensuring that these guys share mutual love. (Bray says of this casting choice: “Originally, this was a black character, and one of the major issues was racism in WT and the evil powers that be that Buford Pusser was up against was a really racist crew of people, and the only person he would partner with was his black deputy. And it was a difficult thing to come up with who this would be in the modern day, and Johnny Knoxville fit the bill perfectly at the end of the search.”) The new team’s preliminary goon roustings are rendered via montage — beating up the ugly thug Booth (Kevin Durand), then smashing to bits his precious pickup (“Johnny’s enjoying himself a little too much,” observes Ivison, “He’s definitely a man comfortable with what he’s doing, experienced; I’m surprised he didn’t hurt himself”).
The following action 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, 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 represents our own cynical moment, when the show is what matters.