I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Walking Tall (2004)

The first thing you see in this movie: “inspired by a true story.” The last thing: “Dedicated to the memory of Sheriff Buford Pusser.”

In between, you got nothing to do with Buford Pusser, except a sheriff with a stick. See, that’s what happens when you raise an entire generation on nothing but Diff’rent Strokes and Duran Duran. They get confused. They grow up, they start running things, but they got heads made out of oatmeal. It’s like letting a dog mow your lawn. If you train it right, it might be able to push the mower around, but it’s gonna do a really bad job by human standards. These kids today, they don’t understand reality. To them, “reality” means you have to eat bugs and stab your best friend in the back to win money. So let me explain it to you knuckleheads. MOVIES ARE NOT REALITY. Because a movie was made in the ’70s does not mean that it actually happened. If you make a remake of Saturday Night Fever or Star Wars, you can’t say “based on a true story.” You have to say “based on a movie you already saw.”

Walking TallA modernized version of a hollywoodized version of a true story is no longer a true story. Just like a remake of a movie that is not a true story, is not a true story, despite the advertising for that thing they released a while back that they claimed was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The movie Garfield is based on a comic strip. It is not based on a true story. The movie Super Mario Brothers is based on a video game. It is not based on a true story. The thing you see on a TV or in a comic book – that is imagination and fun. The thing you are in right now, at your house? That is reality. Look out the window now. Reality. Got it? There’s a difference.

As soon as you take one step outside of the border of Hollywood proper, none of this needs explaining. But the reason why it bothers me is because I guarantee you, there is not a single human being on this planet, or any other planet, that was or ever will be tempted to see the Walking Tall remake because they believe that it is a true story. That is some obsolete advertising rule that probaly wasn’t even entirely accurate when it was made up 50 years ago. Because of these types of cases, modern humans do not consider the tagline “based on a true story” to be trustworthy. So all you’re doing is make people snort when you claim that your garbagey remake is based on a true story. So just stop it, guys. Leave us alone.

Anyway, the movie. In this version instead of Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser coming back to his hometown in Tenessee, becoming sheriff and cleaning up the moonshiners, we get The Rock as Chris Vaughn coming back to his hometown in Washington state and cleaning up the crystal meth. And to be frankly honest, that is not a bad thing. I loved The Rock in The Rundown and he’s great in this one too. Huge and menacing but completely charming. He has an inherent Good Guy quality about him, especially when he comes back and lives with his well cast parents. I especially like his interaction with his quiet father who for reasons we never learn is appalled by guns and did not approve of his son joining the military.

This movie is kind of a throwback in its violent anger against the decline of our communities into drugs and thuggery. But it has a little bit of a modern Washingtonian twist. The problems in the town come from the closing of the lumber mill where Vaughn’s dad used to work. Vaughn’s old acquaintance Jay inherited the mill but immediately closed it down and opened a casino (pretending to be 1/16th Blackfoot Indian). So now the town’s entire economy is based on the casino, and even Vaughn’s sweet ex-sweetheart works there as a peepshow pole dancer. There is one little bit that shows this is a symptom of a larger problem, though, when Jay goes into town to buy lumber and sees that the store where he always bought it is closed down (with an adult video store moved in next door). “There’s a Home Depot up the street,” his dad explains, non-judgmentally.

Anyway, Jay lets Vaughn and his friends come into the VIP room at the casino, and Vaughn seems skeptical but accepting of his hometown’s new decadence. Like in the original, he sees his friend getting cheated at a dice game, but it’s kind of more exciting here because he makes a big scene proving to a crowd that the dice are loaded. This leads to violence and mayhem, with a few gratuitous karate type moves on the part of the casino security, but for the most part it’s a good fight and Vaughn ends up with the same multiple stab wounds that Pusser got (but offscreen, since it’s PG-13.)

After recuperating, he finds he can’t press charges because the sleazy sheriff considers the casino a “no fly-zone” and the matter settled. Before Vaughn can figure out what to do about it, his streetwise nephew Petey almost dies of a crystal meth overdose, and the kids say they got the drugs from the security guys at the casino. So Vaughn grabs a shotgun and drives to the casino in a rage.

This is the best part of the movie. He cocks the shotgun, and people in front of the casino start screaming. Oh my god, he’s a maniac. He thinks for a moment, then comes up with a better plan. Tosses the shotgun back in the truck and grabs a 2×4 out of the back. (See? True story.) Then he goes in and just starts smashing all the machines, and beating the piss out of the security guys who come after him. Finally he tosses the lumber through a 2 way mirror in the ceiling to reveal Jay watching from upstairs. So of course Jay is the lead villain here. He’s played by Neal McDonough, which is not a name I’d recognize, but I bet you’d recognize his face from Minority Report or Ravenous or something. He’s a big blonde meatwad who looks like either Paul Walker’s evil cousin or how Ian Ziering pictures himself in his fantasies.

So after facing him down, Vaughn takes off. There’s a great little scene where he tries to drive away, adrenaline pumping, like he just robbed a bank, with no hope of escaping the police. Not a car chase, just a short, token attempt at leaving.

But this is where the plot really kicks in, and where the trouble starts. While on trial for his crime, Vaughn makes the big speech about cleaning up the town, tears open his shirt to show all his stab wounds and announces that if he’s acquitted he will run for sheriff and make sure this never happens again. Unfortunately he also works in a cornball line about “in this town, people used to walk tall.” Get it? WALK TALL. Because it’s called WALKING TALL.

They skip over the election and Vaughn is already sheriff. He fires the entire police department but hires his ex-junkie friend Johnny Knoxville (I think I saw this guy electrify his balls in the movie Jackass) as a deputy. So for the rest of the movie, they are the entire police force. Vaughn stays at the sheriff’s department by himself, which is helpful so that he can have sex with his ex-girlfriend when she comes over, because there’s nobody else there so it’s not rude.

Earlier in the movie, his older sister was a police officer, but this never comes up again. So I can only assume that he fired his sister too. That’s kind of harsh.

The new two man police force immediately falls into corruption. I know they are going against bad guys, but they still shouldn’t pull people over for no reason, break people’s headlights, plant drugs on people, destroy their trucks while “searching for drugs,” etc. That’s not cleaning up Kitsap County, Sheriff Vaughn. That’s just stooping to their level. And besides, didn’t you learn anything from O.J.? You don’t try to frame a guilty man, it doesn’t turn out good.

But the movie is over way too fast to contemplate these issues. He quickly finds out that the meth lab is in the old mill, so he goes there and finds that the big cheese Jay also apparently works alone, standing there by himself waiting for Vaughn to show up. And this is where the wood symbolism kicks in.

You see, earlier in the movie we learned that the original good-hearted sheriff from when Vaughn left town 8 years ago was killed by falling asleep and crashing into a tree (shades of the real Buford Pusser, who crashed his Corvette into an embankment). Before the casino, the town’s economy was based on the lumber mill, where Vaughn’s dad worked. And it was the mill that brought Vaughn back into town, remembering the smell of fresh cedar when he went to visit his dad at work when he was a kid, and wanting to get a job there. Even as sheriff, he carries a piece of cedar with him, using it as his weapon and trademark. And now here he is facing down the owner of the mill, who is using the mill to make crystal meth instead of wood. And the bastard drops Vaughn down a chute, like he himself was a tree.

They fight in the mill, but quickly find themselves outside in the woods, Jay wielding an axe and Vaughn wielding a stick. So there it is – the woodcutter against the wood. Jay uses his destructive, man-made tool and Vaughn uses a gift from mother Earth herself. There he is, The Rock. The Wood. Summoning the power of The Tree, reaching its roots deep into The Earth, where it pulls out the strength of the good sheriff who died at the hands of the Tree those five months ago.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it, I don’t know.

Anyway, now that we’ve taken down the drugs and danced with the wood sprites, it’s time for the other foot to come down. In the original Walking Tall, and in real life, the seeming victory is capped by horrible tragedy. Pusser brings his wife along on a call, and some guys drive by, shoot her in the head, and shoot him in the face. In both reality and movie his wife died, and in the movie he came out of the hospital defiant, his whole face wrapped in plaster, crashed his car through the side of the tavern and watched as the citizens pulled out all the furniture and started a bonfire. So if you’ve seen that movie, now you’re ready for the climax…

Too bad. No tragedy. Story’s over. The casino is shut down and the mill opens again. This is probaly okay if you’ve never seen the original, but if you have, it’s kind of like that feeling where you step off of a curb and you think the ground is right there but you misjudged it, it’s about six inches farther down, and you almost fall on your face. Or when you’re reading a book, and you don’t realize there’s an excerpt from another book at the end. So you finish off a chapter and you turn the page, anxious to find out what happens next… but you realize the book is over now, you just read the last page. And you have to go back and re-read it to try to get comfortable with the idea that this is the end of the story.

I still think The Rock is great, and Johnny Knoxville is a less annoying sidekick than The Rundown‘s Sean William Scott. But this movie should probaly be better. It’s a good dumb movie remade as an okay dumb movie. But based on a true story, I guess, in a way, if you’re dumb.

p.s. I liked on the TV ads, they showed the Rock breaking the Walking Tall logo with his stick. That was cool. That’s not in the movie though.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 22nd, 2004 at 8:36 am and is filed under Action, Comedy/Laffs, Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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