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(2004) (The Rock, Johnny Knoxville) (PG-13)

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Drama/Action: After returning to his hometown only to find it rife with corruption and drug dealing, a retired military man takes it upon himself to clean the place up and set things straight.
It's been eight years since Chris Vaughn (THE ROCK) has been back to his hometown in the Pacific Northwest and things have changed drastically. The once prosperous lumber mill has been shuttered and replaced by a lucrative casino run by childhood acquaintance Jay Hamilton (NEAL McDONOUGH).

After a home-cooked dinner with parents, Chris Sr. (JOHN BEASELY) and Connie (BARBARA TARBUCK), younger sister Michelle (KRISTEN WILSON) and nephew Pete (KHLEO THOMAS), Chris heads off to Jay's casino with longtime friend Ray (JOHNNY KNOXVILLE).

Following a surprise private striptease given by his high school girlfriend Deni (ASHLEY SCOTT) - who initially doesn't recognize him - Chris spots a craps dealer using a fixed pair of dice. When Chris decides to point him out and demand that he stop, that leads to a bad confrontation with security that leaves Chris badly wounded.

After weeks of recovery, Chris discovers that the same people who beat him up are dealing drugs to the local kids, including Pete. Wanting to set things straight, Chris heads down to the casino and invokes some physical justice on the wrongdoers.

That leads to his arrest and a court case, but he informs the jury that if they acquit him, he'll run for sheriff and clean up the town. They do and he does (including hiring Ray as his deputy), leading to an inevitable confrontation with Jay and his goons who want to put an end to this troublesome do-gooder.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Hell may hath no fury like a woman scorned, but Hades has nothing on a macho man who's been wronged in some fashion. That is, at least in the movies where, since time immortal, the heroes of westerns, war flicks, action-adventure movies or thrillers and more have gotten their revenge on villains who've wronged them or others.

Then there's that particular offshoot of such movies known as vigilante pictures where the vengeful "heroes" not only get such revenge, but also do so by taking the law into their own hands, sometimes as the law. One need only think of the "Death Wish" and "Dirty Harry" films as examples.

Another from that same troubled era was "Walking Tall." Reportedly based on the life of Southern sheriff Buford Pusser and his "walk tall and carry a big stick" fashion of enforcing his own brand of justice, the 1973 film became a huge hit and made a star of Joe Don Baker.

It also caused various instances of copycat behavior with the lumber yard briefly replacing the gun store for the weapon of choice. It's hard to say if the same will happen with the remake of the same name. There's no doubt, however, that it's going to play well to the same sort of people who embraced the first film and/or the theatrical antics of professional wrestler turned actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson who takes on Baker's role.

Not surprisingly, the story's details have been changed. Working from the original script, the screenwriting quartet of David Klass ("Kiss the Girls," "Desperate Measures"), Channing Gibson ("Cradle 2 the Grave," "Lethal Weapon 4") and David Levien & Brian Koppelman ("Knockaround Guys," "Rounders") has moved the locale from the South to the Pacific Northwest. They've also ironically switched the protagonist's profession from wrestler to military vet (while also changing his name) and eliminated his family before the villains do. The "kick butt and take no prisoners" theme and atmosphere, however, remain pretty much intact.

Probably to no one's surprise, this can safely be described as a guy film and I've been known from time to time to fall under the spell of such vengeful tales (in superior flicks such as "The Limey" and "Mad Max"). The problem here, however, concerns motivation.

Simply put, and notwithstanding the catalytic black and white issue of right and wrong, there isn't enough reason for the protagonist to act the way he does, at least not initially. In fact, few of the characters -- from the stripper who ends up bedding the hero in the sheriff's station when he knows the villains are going to strike at any moment to those thugs who aren't particularly subtle in their methods of wounding or trying to kill him -- behave in a believable fashion.

Some may argue that such an objection is moot since this is a macho and cathartic fairy tale. Yet, with just a few simple plot tweaks here and there, many if not all of the problems could have been rectified. Maybe there was more originally to the plot than what ultimately appears on the screen. Clocking in at less than 90 minutes including credits, the film feels as if big chunks of it have been cut out. I'm all for jettisoning any superfluous material, but that gets a bit ridiculous and disruptive here.

One can assume that's been done to cut to the chase, so to speak, and make this a nearly nonstop action flick. Indeed, director Kevin Bray ("All About the Benjamins") seems intent on filling the film with as much head-busting action as possible. Those who are into such mayhem will probably get into all of the ruckus and mayhem. If we truly believed in what the character was doing, however, and didn't keep noting that he was breaking the law just as badly as those he's now after, the effort might have worked better for everyone else.

And it should have considering that one can tell that The Rock ("The Rundown," "The Scorpion King") has what it takes to be a movie star and possibly a good actor. While he easily fits the role from a physical perspective (it's easy to buy that he's actually holding the 4x4 piece of lumber that he wields), one can only think what the character might have been like had he stayed within the law to get the job done (or had there been an examination of what makes him tick).

As his troubled sidekick, Johnny Knoxville ("Men in Black 2," "Big Trouble") is about the only breath of fresh air to be found in the film. With some funny physical stunts (that obviously will remind his fans a bit of his masochistic "Jackass" stunt days), the actor is a good complement to Johnson's towering presence.

Neal McDonough ("Minority Report," "Star Trek: First Contact") is, I suppose, appropriately one-dimensional as the villain and somehow manages to go toe-to-toe with the big guy in the scene's climatic finale (although thankfully not to the extended degree of a similar moment in, say, "Lethal Weapon"). More depth on his character's part, however, could have made the entire film that much more interesting and the payback moments more satisfying or conversely troubling and maybe even tragic.

The rest of the cast -- from Khleo Thomas ("Holes," "Friday After Next") as the troubled nephew who's into drugs, John Beasely ("The Sum of all Fears," "The Gift") as the concerned father and Ashley Scott ("S.W.A.T." "AI: Artificial Intelligence") as the stripper-cum-eye candy -- simply can't do anything with their sketchily written parts. I realize this sort of film isn't interested in any sort of depth from its secondary characters, but still...

All of which leaves the vindictive action to carry the film. While there are some energetic moments and you're forced to root for the good guys to prevail over the bad (by default), this isn't anywhere near the cream of the crop when it comes to action flicks or even individual scenes.

With a bevy of revenge films being released theatrically around the same time as this offering, we seem to be witnessing a rebirth of the frustrated American viewer who wants to witness the sort of cathartic butt-kicking that's been evident in cinematic offerings at various times in the past. That could lead to all sorts of philosophical, cultural and societal discussion as to why, but this film has no such grandiose intentions.

Instead, it simply wants to get the audience rooting for the hero to evoke some old-fashioned justice on the villainy of the world. While that will obviously happen for some viewers, the effort is ultimately undermined by questionable morals, motivation and behavior. "Walking Tall" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 27, 2004 / Posted April 2, 2004

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