There’s something to be said for watching vigilante justice in movies. I believe that we all have some sort of dark anger lurking inside of us. When we see an injustice such as someone’s wheelchair being taken from the back of a truck or watching a country go to war for suspect reasons, that’s when the anger stirs. For most of us, it stays in the pit of our subconscious It might lead to some sort of comment but that’s likely where it stops. So it’s nice to see someone take action, even if it is a semi-retired professional wrestler who still goes by his noun name. So Walking Tall is no classic, but as a real-life fantasy with a strong lead performance, it could have been a lot worse.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is Chris Vaughn, a genuine hero in today’s America. He’s a soldier returning home after his eight-year tour of duty is over. When you leave home, your memories of the place do not change. But home does. The first thing Chris aims to do is get a job at the local sawmill, because that’s the only place to get a job in the sleepy town. But the mill has long since closed. In a realization of It’s a Wonderful Life, it is like Chris had never been born. The mill’s heir, Jay Hamilton, Jr. (Neal McDonough), a former schoolmate of Chris’, locked the doors and built a casino. Now everyone in the town either works at the tables or gambles there in hopes of scraping together enough money to pay the bills. Hamilton owns the town and runs it the way he sees fit. And big, tough Chris no like. So big, tough Chris grab piece of lumber and get mad.
Upon taking matters into his own hands, Chris finds himself wearing the sheriff’s badge and aims to clean things up. But when your town is corrupt to the core, it’s easy to have such aspirations but in order to actually carry it out, you need a bat with a duct taped grip. Or so Walking Tall suggests. Good and bad are so clearly defined that the people are ready for someone to take action. They’ve been suppressed under the casino rule and lost all hope. Chris is the first person to show signs of gray because of his willingness to take matters into his own hands to instigate change. But because those around him are so black and white, his motives are in place when he goes tough guy in the casino.
Walking Tall is ‘inspired by a true story’ meaning something sort of similar happened in the past and because it actually sort of happened, there’s some reality in this one too. It’s more a modern myth than anything else. The real-life Chris Vaughn was actually named Buford Pusser and his story was made into a film in 1973 with two sequels following in 1975 and 1977 and a short-lived TV show in 1981. With so many interpretations, it’s tough to say how much reality is left in this incarnation of Walking Tall. The fact that it’s inspired by a true story rather than based on one should provide the answer.
But if something’s inspired, it should be getting to the heart of the source material. No matter where the fact and fiction lie, Walking Tall taps into something very relevant and political. I think much of western society is fed up with those in control right now. The rich seem to be getting richer while those struggling to get by are struggling even more. Here in Canada, our government is under investigation for potentially skimming a hundred million dollars of tax money. The fallout in the United States happened a couple of years ago with Enron and the many other corporate scandals. Now the government is fighting a war that they’re struggling to justify because the initial justification turned out to be founded on lies and misleading information. I feel that many people have lost a lot of hope and they want a knight to come in and save the day. That’s what the Chris Vaughn character is about. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t write letters to the editor. He takes action, even if he knows it’s a losing battle or one that goes contrary to the suppressing powers.
If there wasn’t the political fantasy behind it, Walking Tall would be a cold vigilante action film with little plot and even less characterization. But the Rock is proving to be as much as presence on the screen as he was in the wrestling ring. Here he’s got the balance of charm and toughness to make you root and believe in him. Johnny Knoxville is an ideal sidekick. He plays Chris’ not-too-intelligent but wisecracking best friend Ray who always seems to being getting beat up. If the film is a societal fantasy, Chris is who we dream of being but it’s much more likely we’d be Ray.
Walking Tall runs just 85 minutes and much of that is spent on barroom-style brawls. Still, director Kevin Bray doesn’t appear to be too ambitious with it. He knows what he wants and that those going to a movie starring the Rock probably want the same thing. Still, what makes it stand out for me is the fact that there’s some subversive politics happening beyond the fighting that is refreshing. It has a political agenda and doesn’t hide behind it. To that end Walking Tall is an unexpected surprise and a pleasant one at that.
Walking Tall Gallery