Walking Tall (2004)

If anything has marked this election year in movies, it’s been the number of anti-Bush and anti-conservative documentaries appearing on screens and DVD shelves. And yet, a simpler (if left-leaning) explanation of the Bush administration’s stubbornness is available in this year’s remake of Walking Tall.

Most obviously, it’s a revenge flick. Chris Vaughan (the Rock) returns from eight years of military service and an unspecified war, to find his hometown turned into a den of sin by Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough). His casino bringing in money, Hamilton has bought out the law, and the rest of the town has drifted into poverty. Vaughan takes this all in stride, until he visits Hamilton’s casino by invitation. When he witnesses a dealer switching dice to rob customers, Vaughan loses it, smashing up the club before being overpowered, beaten viciously, and left for dead by security. He is brought to court, where he defends himself in a speech so passionate it gets him elected sheriff. Now with a shiny badge on his shirt pocket, he vows to clean up the town. His weapon of choice is a piece of 2×4 lumber.

The parallels between this story and Bush’s foray into Iraq are apparent. Hamilton is the iron-fisted ruler of a humble people, while Vaughan is man who is willing to do something the negative influence of Hamilton’s rule on the town, with a strike-first-ask-questions-later attitude. Though plainly asked to back Vaughan, the audience might well wonder at his violent outburst in Hamilton’s club (afterwards, even Hamilton offers that Vaughan could’ve come to see him about the grifting). Regardless, Vaughan sees that his town needs to be rescued, and, deputizing his best friend Ray Templeton (Johnny Knoxville), he fires the rest of the police fire and goes about setting his agenda.

Walking Tall takes its basic plot from the 1973 original, based on the life of Sheriff Buford Pusser. The new screenplay is attributed to no less than four screenwriters, none, apparently, feeling the need to depict gray areas, no weakness in Vaughan or complexity in McDonough. Kevin Bray and editor George Bowers’ commentary reveals that they stripped their film of the original’s racial politics; though Vaughan is mixed, he and his family are never targets of plainly racist violence. Instead, Bray sees the movie as a series of fight sequences, a simplification that leaves it open to interpretation as a barometer of our political climate (it can be argued, for instance, that diplomacy for Vaughn, as for George W. Bush, is not an option).

The DVD features further emphasize the film’s focus on action. The self-congratulatory “Fight the Good Fight” features members of cast and crew talking about the “realism” of the fight scenes, no matter their narrative or thematic contexts. Under Bray’s direction, visceral theatrics take precedence over dialogue or plot. This makes for another comparison to the Bush administration, whose explicitly sound-bite approach has encouraged listeners to be either “with him or against him.” In the same way, Walking Tall almost bullies the viewer into siding with Vaughan. With minimal dialogue (and without a memorable catch phrase), the film is a cartoonish presentation of violence masquerading as justice.

Perhaps it’s unfair to politicize this movie, so overtly designed as an action vehicle for the Rock (who shows remarkable charisma). But its video-gameish approach to conflict and morality speaks volumes about our current political climate. The U.S. media and politicians have effectively disengaged the public from intelligent discourse, focusing on color-coded terror alerts. Similarly, Walking Tall expects the audience to accept its premise, no matter how ludicrous, punishing the villain with glee and without remorse.