The only reason I ever saw Phil Karlson’s 1973 film Walking Tall was that I was a projectionist at a drive-in — backed up to, aptly enough, a cow pasture — that was showing this fluke exploitation hit. I was frankly morally opposed to what I knew of its shoot-first-ask-questions-later brand of “justice,” and nothing about the movie did anything to change my mind. After one viewing, I took to leaving the door to the projection booth open and watching the cattle mill around behind the drive-in in the light from the projector, paying attention to the onscreen antics only at reel changes. The cattle were much more persuasive performers than anyone in that witless melodrama, which unfolded in a mind-numbing 125 minutes.
The good news about The Rock-ized remake is that — shorn of its preposterously overlong end credits — it wastes a mere 75 minutes of your time. That doesn’t make it any better, just shorter, but in this case, shorter is better.
The original film (like the new one, “inspired by a true story”) touched some kind of nerve with a large cross-section of the American public, who went lollipops over this Southern-fried Dirty Harry variant — a reaction that gave birth to the term “hixploitation flick” and made Joe Don Baker a star for a good 10 minutes. It was old territory for director Karlson, who’d made not dissimilar movies in the 1950s, notably the “true life” Phenix City Story, which also dealt with a small Southern town taken over by gangsters who run crooked gambling and prostitution operations. That film, however, was also an indictment of racism and wasn’t designed to glorify a sheriff who took the law into his own hands.
Nearly 20 years later, Karlson’s hard-edged sensibility hadn’t dimmed (we’re talking about the man who turned his two Charlie Chan movies — The Shanghai Cobra and Dark Alibi — into gritty films noir), but his aims were certainly more dubious. Kevin Bray — who made the enjoyably junky All About the Benjamins — has no aims beyond creating a mindless action vehicle for The Rock, who’s already a star. The interesting thing is that there is a provocative subtext here — with the Samoan-descended Rock up against the villainy of blonde, blue-eyed, ueber-Aryan Neal McDonough (Timeline). Unfortunately, neither Bray — nor the four credited screenwriters — has any idea what to do with this, and have ignored it in favor of rabble-rousing melodramatics, tepid comedy, TV-movie violence, and the undeniable charm of their star.
Mr. Rock plays ex-special-forces soldier Chris Vaughn, who returns to his Washington-state hometown to discover the logging mill shut down and its owner, Jay Hamilton Jr. (McDonough), now running a crooked casino (improbably licensed to him by his claim of being “one-sixteenth Cherokee”) with a burgeoning crystal meth business on the side. His old girlfriend (Ashley Scott, S.W.A.T.) has even been reduced to the level of an exotic dancer at the casino, while his nephew (the too-precocious-for-words Khleo Thomas, Holes) has become a little dope-smoking badass who nearly ODs on crystal meth. After being beaten, cut up, left for dead, and getting no satisfaction from the Hamilton-controlled sheriff’s department, Chris wages war with a four-by-four on the casino. Realizing his lawyer is in cahoots with the bad guys, he defends himself, is acquitted, and becomes sheriff, so that his vigilante-ism is legal!
There’s not one scrap of logic in any of it. With the lumber mill shut down, it’s unclear where any of the townfolk get the money for gambling and drugs. Even though the people put Chris into office, no sooner is he there than his entire police force consists of himself and comic sidekick Ray (Johnny Knoxville, Jackass: the Movie). The pair of them run riot for a few scenes, engaging in wildly illegal law-enforcement “tactics,” until they goad Hamilton into the expected revenge attempt — with the expected results. It’s almost silly enough to be amusing, especially when one of the nameless goons complains that Ray tried to kill him with a potato peeler — and I suppose that might be the height of personal embarrassment in nameless goon-dom.
The funniest thing, though, may be the CGI effect of Chris’ four-by-four flying away when the bad guys blow up his truck. Not to worry, though, because when Hamilton comes after him with a fire-axe (I think he borrowed it from Jack Nicholson in The Shining), the pair are in a redwood forest and there are plenty of big sticks at hand. If only The Rock had used one on the filmmakers …
– reviewed by Ken Hanke