Originally created 04/02/04

At the Movies: 'Walking Tall'



Suppose a peaceable man comes to town, where he's initially welcomed, later scorned, scourged and spat on for threatening to upset the order of things.

Then suppose, instead of turning the other cheek, he picks up a big honkin' stick.

You could call it "The Passion of The Rock." Or you could call it "Big Dumb Brute Busts Heads."

Whatever the title, "Walking Tall" is a vicious bit of blood sport.

The filmmakers were careful to camouflage the effects of the violence so younger teens will be spared the trauma of knowing the results when a 4-by-4 club of hard wood connects with a skull. But despite its PG-13 rating, the movie carries a spirit of gleeful savagery that is contemptible.

The 1973 movie on which the update is based was sickening, too, yet it presented a central figure whose vigilante motivations were at least remotely plausible.

The new version has no reason to exist other than as a fresh marquee title above which wrestler The Rock's name can be plastered.

"Walking Tall" transplants the tale from Tennessee to rural Washington, and it scraps the real-life protagonist, Buford Pusser, a name The Rock - aka Dwayne Johnson - apparently could not stomach.

The Rock plays Chris Vaughn, who comes home after eight years in the U.S. Special Forces to a town overrun by drugs, gambling and corruption.

Vaughn's old high school rival Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough) has closed his family's lumber mill, throwing the town into economic upheaval. In its place, Hamilton has opened a casino that's the local headquarters for narcotics, vice and other disreputable doings.

Protesting Hamilton's crooked craps tables, Vaughn is beaten, tortured and left for dead by the casino's ruffians. With the local cops in on the scam, Vaughn gets himself elected sheriff and comes out swinging his giant club.

As Vaughn's old pal and new deputy, Johnny Knoxville provides a few meager moments of humor, while Ashley Scott is tossed in as a token romantic interest for The Rock.

The pea-brained script credited to four writers never makes clear if Vaughn really is crusading for justice or if he's just out for personal vengeance.

Vaughn's not a terribly good guy himself, and the character is so underdeveloped that there's little for The Rock to hang his winning personality on.

Apparently, we're supposed to root for him simply because he's The Rock, but in "Walking Tall," he just seems like the new thug on the block.

Seemingly the sole preoccupation of director Kevin Bray was to sneak in as much gunplay and bestial truncheoning as possible without putting the coveted 13-to-17 demographic out of the loop.

The Rock's "The Rundown" last year had a similar quotient of sanitized violence, but it was done for comic effect, like the Three Stooges on steroids.

In "Walking Tall," violence is a way of life, the only means to an end. It's vile, and you should stay away.

"Walking Tall," an MGM release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence, sexual content, drug material and language. Running time: 86 minutes. One star out of four.