A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, PG-13, 79 mins.

Chris Vaughn: The Rock / Jay Hamilton: Neal McDonough / Ray Templeton: Johnny Knoxville / Chris Vaughn Sr.: John Beasley / Connie Vaughn: Barbara Tarbuck / Michelle: Kristen Wilson / Pete: Khleo Thomas / Deni: Ashley Scott

Directed by Kevin Bray /  Written by Channing Gibson, David Klass, Brian Koppelman and David Levien

Okay…Dwayne Johnson…a.k.a. The Rock…a.k.a. “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment”…I could go on and on.  Well, whether you like it or not, Mr. Rock can also successfully add big screen action hero to his already expanding resume, as he has clearly established himself on being on a minor role as of late. 

It all started back with the stinker that was THE SCORPION KING, a preposterously silly film that, nevertheless, was spared from absolute mediocrity by the winning presence of Johnson.  Next came the really surprising THE RUNDOWN from last year, an effective combination of action, comedy, and kinetic and stylistic visuals.  In that 2003 film The Rock really began to solidify his on- screen persona as not just a physical presence (as he completely is one), but as an actor of charm, wit, and charisma.  It was clear after watching THE RUNDOWN that The Rock is  perched to take over from Arnold Schwarzenneger as the new king of action films.  While Au-nuld is too busy being Governor and trying to correctly pronounce “California” in his speeches, The Rock is also busy establishing himself as the next big thing. 

I am not a fan of professional wrestling, but I do like The Rock.  He, like Arnold, has that raw physical presence that really makes him stand out in a crowd.  Both actors also have a lot of charisma, which more than makes up for any deficiencies in their range.  But I think that The Rock maybe scores points over the current Governor of California in the sense that he is slowly revealing himself to be an action star of range.  Yes, he will not be doing any period costume dramas anytime soon, but he does have that sort of disquieting calm and smooth, easy-going presence that makes him more of an effective everyman, despite his physical assets.  I find The Rock more of a realistic and grounded presence than Arnold…he sort of feels like a buddy back home that just happens to be gigantic.   

All of this brings me to his new action film, a remake of the 1973 cult classic WALKING TALL.  That film starred Joe Don Baker as the real life Sheriff Buford Pusser and his run-ins with the local scum of his town.  The new 2004 film with The Rock follows the basic premise of the original, but changes character’s names, locations, and feels about as real as any film that could have included men like Robin Hood.  It’s funny, considering that the makers still felt the need to have a caption “Inspired by a true story” at the opening credits in some sort of pathetic marketing tool.  I for once never believed in the events of the film, so the mention of “true story” seems redundant, if not a bit ridiculous.  WALKING TALL is not so much an exploration of small town justice as it is a somewhat entertaining, if not flat and uneven action picture. 

The film opens with The Rock as a war hero (what war, we are not really sure…we can only assume) named Chris Vaughn who has just returned to his southern hometown.  His aims are simple and modest: he hopes to get a job at the local mill that his father worked at for decades.  Hmmm…after fighting for your country and risking your life, could he not have thought of anything a bit more exciting and rewarding?  Anyway, Chris, to his surprise, finds out that the sawmill has been closed down for years (he has not been home for eight) and the town's new form of income is derived from a nearby Casino owned and run by one of his high school friends, Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough).  Of course, this Casino is one of those immoral and corrupt places that not only ruins people’s lives with gambling, but also dabbles in drugs by distributing them to kids (that’s the last straw!). 

Clearly, Hamilton is one of those film characters that, the absolute instance you see him, it's clear that he is the villain, with his short cropped dyed hair and his thousand dollar suits.  It’s not long before Chris and Hamilton meet up, but in kind of a surprising scene of mutual regard.  The two meet and reacquaint themselves on friendly terms, which gets somewhat ugly in a spirited game of football (to hammer down our throats that Hamilton is “the bad guy”, he plays “bad” and dirty…was their any doubt?).   Hamilton then invites Chris and his buddy Jay (the very appealing and funny Johnny Knoxville) to spend a night at his Casino, amusingly named The Twin Cherries.  They willfully go, but when the boy scout that is Chris realizes that there is a lot of cheating being perpetrated by the dealers, he tries to take law into his own hands.  He then gets in the middle of a huge fight with Hamilton’s goons, which goes south real fast and results in Chris spending some serious time in the hospital.   

There is more bad news for Chris when he learns that his sister’s kid overdosed on some of the drugs supplied by Hamilton’s Casino.  Before you can same “smack down” Chris, in a fit of rage, goes into the Casino with a rather large piece of lumber and sure does “clean up” the place, from destroying slot machines to breaking various body parts of Hamilton’s henchmen.  Chris feels that he was morally justified, but very quickly gets arrested and goes to court.  What then emerges is one of the most ham-invested and reality bending court room scenes of recent memory.   

You see, Chris quickly grows sick of hearing of the insurmountable evidence and eye witness testimony against him (there’s enough here to put even a Saint away for good) and fires his lawyer in mid-trial and decides to defend himself.  He feels that if he stands up in court, pleads to the jury that he had a right to do what he did, and show them his terrible wounds he suffered from his first encounter with the goons, then maybe the jury will let him off.  Moreover, he thinks that if he pleads to them that he wishes to run for Sheriff and “clean up the town”, then he will easily get off.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh. What results is not surprising, but one of those inanely realized courtroom moments where the hero is let go, despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt because, dammit, he’s gonna get those sons of bitches!  Only in a movie does one man's own inner convictions and drive to do good completely override his absolute guilt…but I digress. 

In what has to be one of the quickest campaigns and elections ever, Chris becomes Sheriff of the town with his one mission in mind – to take out Hamilton so that the citizens of the town can once again “walk tall”.  He fires all of the local corrupt deputies and hires his pal Jay to be his own right hand man (which may or may not be a good idea, since he is a convicted felon).  Nevertheless, Jay and Chris begin their quest of ridding the town of the Casino scum, which eventually leads to a final bloody showdown with Chris and Hamilton. 

The film is an action film, pure and simple, and many of the set pieces are handled well and The Rock is clearly no stranger to filling the requirements of these scenes.  I especially liked the pairing of The Rock and Knoxville (who you may remember gracing the silver screen last in JACKASS THE MOVIE where he was putting electrodes to his genitals).  Knoxville comes across as a really interesting, quirky, and offbeat presence and definitely has a career in the future.  The Rock, as stated previously, goes all out in this film with a marginalized and under- developed character.  He does give Chris much more dimension and depth than was clearly on the printed page and definitely maintains his edge as a winning presence.  The Rock makes WALKING TALL work, and when he’s on screen, we watch and are entertained.  He is easily digestible as an actor, but if he does it well, that should not be held against him. 

It’s kind of shameful, in hindsight, that The Rock and Knoxville are such a great pair that they are not able to populate a much better film.  The two of them together are much greater in the sum of their parts then this film was as a whole.  WALKING TALL starts off slowly and gently, and feels more like a small town drama by introducing the characters and giving them some breathing room.  The film works well in these expository scenes, but then gets bogged down into the conventions of yet another one of those standard action-revenge pictures where the passionate hero battles off against a generic bad guy.  An action film like this, which is already hopelessly predictable, is only as good as its villain, and McDonough as Hamilton is cool and detached, but kind of one-note and bland throughout the film (imagine re-writing the film Christopher Walken in the part and the film might have really lifted off).  Also, the screenplay also feels the need to throw in a sexy old girlfriend (Ashley Scott) into the mix to provide The Rock with more tender moments, but her character is so lacking in development and proper screen time that she comes across as a detriment, despite her beauty. 

WALKING TALL will not hurt The Rock’s career at all.  Hell, even great action stars had their share of stinkers (remember RAW DEAL, RED SONJA, END OF DAYS, Arnold?).  WALKING TALL is just a momentary lapse in an otherwise fledging career. The film is too lame to be taken seriously, and far too short (the final credits rolled by at the hour and 15 minute mark!) to seriously explore its story and characters.  What it does  successfully is show us The Rock in all of his butt-kicking glory.  It’s not that the film is lacking in fun, but rather that it’s pedestrian with its material, under-whelming, and not really as flashy as its leading man.  C’mon, “the millions…and miiiiiiilllllions of the Rock’s fans” know that good ol’ Dwayne deserves better.


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