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Rock’s solid, but ‘Walking Tall’ loses focus

Brandon Hollihan | Wednesday, April 7, 2004

The Rock should not be an action star.Okay, let’s rephrase that – he shouldn’t be just an action star. Granted, when you’re a 6-foot-5, 255-pound professional wrestler (although the Rock, whose real-life name is Dwayne Johnson, seems to be leaning away from that moniker with each passing day) you’re going to experience a few type casts early in your career. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t hurt for the Rock to branch out into other genres – the occasional romantic comedy or high-profile independent film, once you’re securing yourself with $15 million per film project.Which is what the Rock has accomplished with the second film version of “Walking Tall,” in which he plays U.S. Special Forces veteran Chris Vaughn, who is fresh off eight years of service and returning to his home in Washington to start a new chapter in his life. What Vaughn comes home to, however, is a corrupted town that has seen its primary source of income – the lumber mill at which Chris’ father (John Beasley) worked – closed down and replaced with a casino run by Chris’ high school classmate and rival, Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough). When not ripping off customers with such gimmicks as weighted dice, the casino also serves as a medium for drug distribution. That plotline is stylishly alluded towards early in the film as Vaughn notices a woman making a purchase in an alleyway on his maiden journey home. Vaughn is affected directly by the casino’s dirty work when his younger cousin Pete (Khleo Thomas) overdoses on crystal meth.In a disgruntled rage Vaughn drives to the casino and wreaks havoc on its employees with a two-by-four. The two-by-four’s usage is actually a tip of the hat to both the real life person on which the film is based, Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, as well as the original 1973 Joe Don Baker version. The rampage leads to Vaughn’s arrest, but alas, Vaughn proves he has a brain during the subsequent trial and promises the townspeople to lay down the law as sheriff if he’s acquitted. The film is actually quite enjoyable up to the major turning point at the trial, as Vaughn is given time to reacquaint him with old friends and foes. As that develops, so do the conflicts Vaughn finds himself in – against Hamilton, against his cronies and against the crooked authorities in Hamilton’s pocket. All this fine development is unwittingly negated by Vaughn’s election as sheriff. The movie then trips over itself by showing off Vaughn’s authority as he comically abuses the casino thugs. When it’s time to get serious again, the story is trapped within its comic elements. It seems that director Kevin Bray wanted to contrast the action-heroics of the Rock with Knoxville’s gleeful, more dimwitted method of fighting bad guys and, it almost works. Give Bray credit for several nice shots which tell the story to the audience through showing rather than exposition, such as Vaughn’s opening walk home, along with a very well laid out sequence of Vaughn in his truck just after the romp through the casino. Also credit the actors for not trying to be too clever and just delivering the material. A weaker cast might have acted more individually and out of sync with other characters (think Samuel L. Jackson walking around and yelling incoherently in any action film not named “Die Hard with a Vengeance” and you know what I’m getting at). We would’ve ended up with a subpar action film, instead of the par rating “Walking Tall” merits.As for the Rock’s film future, it’s definitely a bright one; he’s easy to root for, he knows how to work a film text, and it seems he understands the basics of giving and taking with other actors. If he truly wants to be the next great action star, though, he may face difficulties. As it is, “Walking Tall” will likely fade towards the video rental store, and the Rock will probably continue to have fun making his action films while doing semi-annual appearances for the WWE on the side. Let’s hope he’s still having fun in the film industry 10 years from now; it’d be a shame to see him bounced out.