2 stars (out of 4)
In the movies as in life, is vigilante justice really justice? That's the question that plagued me throughout "Walking Tall," a remake of the 1973 hit movie of the same name, which spun off into two sequels and a television series.
Inspired by actual events surrounding Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser, this latest incarnation has migrated north to Ferguson, Wash., and stars The Rock (nee Dwayne Douglas Johnson) as a modern-day Pusser named Chris Vaughn. (The fewer syllables, the better.)
After serving eight years with the Special Forces, Chris returns home to find his town in disarray. The lumber mill where his father worked has closed, with a crooked casino owned by Chris's high school rival, Jay Hamilton, taking its place as the city's main source of income and jobs. Hamilton, played fiercely by the convincing Neal McDonough, runs the town like a Pacific Northwest despot, with the local sheriff complicit in all his corruption.
When Chris' teenage nephew Pete gets crystal meth from the security guards at Hamilton's casino, Chris seeks vengeance, wielding a long piece of lumber to smash slot machines and drug pushers' knees. He gets arrested and argues his case in court, promising the jury that if it acquits him, he will run for sheriff and clean up Ferguson. His defense, essentially, is that though he may be guilty of bashing in six guys' heads, he did it for a good cause and therefore should be found innocent.
He is, and here is where that question I mentioned earlier started pecking away at my concentration. I know it's a movie, and sure, the bad guys are pretty brutal, but siccing this hulk of a man on the town, no matter what his intentions, doesn't spell justice to me.
The Rock tries to infuse his performance with delicate emotion, but in most of the film's quieter scenes, his hard exterior overrides any cinematic softer side. I feel a little guilty placing so much emphasis on the guy's physical appearance, but if you're going to pump iron to look like a powerhouse, you're going to be treated like one.
As sheriff, Chris enlists his old screw-up buddy, Ray Templeton (Johnny Knoxville of "Jackass" fame), to be his deputy, and the two manage the town with a big stick - literally. As in the original, the sheriff carries an intimidating wooden club, and I'm relieved director Kevin Bray chose not to update that stick into some sort of giant pine Taser.
Ray and Chris beat up on cars and men as a means to their honest ends. Their ethical bender endangers the Vaughn family, and for protection, Chris arms his pacifist father (John Beasley), who, of course, must eventually use the weapon in an act both heroic and demoralizing.
Forgoing computer-generated special effects, Bray worked up intense and gritty fight scenes with hand-to-hand combat and the scaled-back use of explosives - the flashiest pyrotechnic trick in the whole movie is a truck that blows up. I didn't expect much tension from the climactic brawl between Chris and Hamilton, because, well, who wouldn't put money on The Rock? But credit should go to McDonough, who emblazons his character with a toughness of body and mind and gives the battle suspense.
In the end, "Walking Tall" is a fine shoot-'em-up remake. The story is mildly gripping, and the action is fresh and entertaining. But when Sheriff Vaughn pulls Hamilton over, asks for his license and registration, cites him for a broken headlight and then proceeds to break that headlight with a 4-by-4, I wonder who we're supposed to be rooting for - the bad guy who sells drugs and rigs dice, or the good guy who breaks arms and skulls?
Directed by Kevin Bray; written by David Klass, Channing Gibson, David Levien, Brian Koppelman, based on a screenplay by Mort Briskin; photographed by Glen MacPherson; music by Graeme Revell; production design by Brent Thomas; edited by George Bowers, Robert Ivison; produced by Jim Burke, Lucas Foster, Paul Schiff, Ashok Amritraj, David Hoberman. An MGM release; opens Friday, April 2. Running time: 1:25. MPAA rating: PG-13 (intense violence, sexual content, drug material and language).
Chris Vaughn - The Rock
Ray Templeton - Johnny Knoxville
Jay Hamilton - Neal McDonough
Chris Sr. - John Beasley
Pete - Khleo Thomas