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Walking Tall (2004)

One man will stand up for whats right.

Directed by:

Kevin Bray

Rating: 4/10

Running Time: 86 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 15

Country: United States

Buford Pusser was a retired wrestler who moved back to his hometown in Tennessee with wife and children in tow, only to come under deadly threat from corrupt locals, leading him to become sheriff and take on the criminals with a large wooden staff. Images of Hercules taming the hinterlands of Europe with his trusty club may resonate in this story, but it is really a very American myth, with Pusser embodying such New World ideals as self-reliance, civilising pioneerism, righteous vengeance, and President Theodore Roosevelt's famous injunction to “speak softly and carry a big stick”.

So it is hardly surprising that Pusser's lifestory has undergone a number of incarnations on America's big and small screens. First, a year before the real Pusser died, he was played by the awesome Joe Don Baker in 'Walking Tall' (1973) – and thereafter Bo Svenson took over the strongman rôle, using that iconic club to enforce the law of diminishing returns in 'Walking Tall Part II' (1975), 'Final Chapter: Walking Tall' (1977), and even a TV series 'Walking Tall' (1981).

Now, after being put out to pasture for almost a quarter of a century, Pusser, or at least the spirit of Pusser, has returned in a new version of 'Walking Tall'. The setting is no longer the South, but an invented lumber town in Washington; the moonshine stills have been updated to sleazy casinos and drug labs (“Believe it or not, I quit drinking”, as one character puts it); the main character is not an ex-wrestler like the real Pusser, but a 'Rambo'-esque retired grunt from Special Forces (although he is played by authentic ex-wrestler Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson); indeed he is not even called Buford Pusser any more, but Chris Vaughn (presumably to make him sound more like a man and less like an, er, pussy); and while Vaughn is still a family man (with mixed-race parents who one suspects would never have been welcome in Pusser's rural Tennessee), conveniently his family does not include wife and kids, enabling him to pound old schoolfriend turned stripper Deni (Ashley Scott) with his other big stick.

The Rock's acting is about as wooden as the truncheon that he wields, but he has an extraordinary physical presence which makes the fight scenes convincingly punishing. His character is so unremitting in his earnestness as he faces off with rich-kid villain Jay (Neal McDonough) that there is little room here for the charisma which 'the Rock' has previously displayed in films like 'The Rundown' – but Johnny Knoxville as Vaughn's old buddy Ray brings some comic relief.

The real question raised by this 'reimagining' of a film from the seventies is “why now?”, and the answer is not so difficult to discern. With its hero who, without ever showing too much concern for the finer questions of legality, intimidates and batters his way through an axis of cartoon-evil criminals (whose casino is actually referred to as a “no-fly zone”), 'Walking Tall' is a barely veiled allegory of the ideology behind America's current 'shock and awe' foreign policy. The values of today's US military are literally brought home by ex-soldier Vaughn – although whether such values are being jingoistically endorsed or hilariously satirised is never really clear.

It's Got: Big men who drive big trucks in a town that is not big enough for all of them, some big blistering barneys, and a very big stick.

It Needs: For someone to take a big stick to the cliché-riddled script.

Alternatives:

and many many westerns., Final Chapter: Walking Tall, First Blood, It's A Wonderful Life, Walking Tall (1973), Walking Tall Part II

Summary

More testosterone than you could shake a stick at – but for engaging drama and character, 'Walking Tall' falls rather short.

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