This remake of the 1973 hit starring Joe Don Baker is loosely based on the life of Sheriff Buford Pusser. In 1964 Pusser was elected, and took over, vice-ridden McNary County on the border of Mississippi and Tennessee. Citizens had become disgusted by the spillover of drugs, gambling and prostitution into their rural communities. Graft and corruption had created a no-man's land where police, either because they were afraid or on the take, stayed away.

The original movie freely embellished the events of Pusser's crusade to stamp out the rackets. The Buford Pusser Museum and gift shop in Adamsville, Tennessee demonstrates the awe and affection that Pusser enjoyed among the citizenry. Visitors may purchase replicas of his badge. For ten dollars you can have a copy of the big stick he used to club crime on the head.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson as Chris Vaughn

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson as Chris Vaughn

The new Walking Tall, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson of TV wrestling fame, could be called Buford Pusser Lite. Gone is the deeply flawed lawman of truth and legend. The story is relocated to a mill town in Washington State. It is filmed at Squamish, British Columbia, near the famed Whistler ski resort. Buford Pusser's name is changed to the less antebellum, Chris Vaughn, and he is now a recently discharged Special Forces soldier. (Watch out, bad guys!) He returns to his childhood home, desiring only a job at the lumber mill and the comforting proximity of family and old friends.

A childhood rival has inherited the mill, shut it down and used the money to fund a casino and drug empire. Chris Vaughn is drawn into the fight, gets elected sheriff and begins to take care of business. He smashes up the dens of vice, and the vice lord's henchmen. No one can stop him. This is the stuff of which gubernatorial candidates are made.

The Rock makes an appealing hero, well-spoken, kind and self-deprecating. He is loyal to Mom, Dad and Sis, and to his old pals. Unfortunately, the complexity of Buford Pusser is gone, replaced by a very nice man who could beat up just about anybody. Johnson, a 6-foot-5 tower of muscle, is an engaging screen presence, but when he fights the tough guys it's hard to imagine any of them withstanding one punch, let alone a drawn-out brawl.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and Johnny Knoxville

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and Johnny Knoxville

The plot is greatly simplified from the original movie and from the actual events. Buford Pusser's wife was murdered in an ambush that nearly killed Pusser. Sheriff Chris Vaughn gets beat up pretty badly, but nobody in his family is harmed. His friends also survive what in real life would have been a hellishly murderous war. This new version also wallows in the American gun fetish. While Sheriff Chris relies mostly on his big stick, the bad guys run around with belt-fed machine guns, like the ones used on Humvees in Iraq. As is usual in gun films, the bad guys are spectacularly inept marksmen. After a few thousand rounds, most real machine gunners are able to hit something, especially if it is fifty feet away.

Article continues below

Like the hicksploitation genre from which it was spawned, Walking Tall is long on violence and short on police procedure. The original film came at a time when drug dealing was a relatively new phenomenon and prisons were perceived as revolving doors. Judicial reforms like the 1966 Miranda Decision, requiring police to read suspects their rights, were meant to reign in rogue cops. A crime-weary public sought a more simple approach. In the movies, rogue cops like Dirty Harry, Popeye Doyle of The French Connection, and Buford Pusser were the new anti-heroes. They broke the law to enforce it. They were direct, unambiguous and violent. Luckily for the citizenry, they never shot an innocent man. All their arrests were clean, and nobody got railroaded into an undeserved prison sentence.

In this Walking Tall, a Canadian casino/strip joint serves as the bad guys' main cash cow. The strippers and lap dancers keep their skimpy costumes on but the sleazy atmosphere is faithfully rendered. The main difference between this casino and real casinos, though, is that everyone in this casino is young and gorgeous. No flabby retirees looking for a cheap buffet here.

Given that WWF wrestling is the most popular television program for young Canadian and American men, it will be hard to keep teenagers away from a film that stars The Rock. Most of them will see the cartoonish violence the way they see wrestling and video games: as theater. Not all young people will be as sophisticated, however. Impressionable kids who injure one another trying to replicate TV wrestling stunts in their back yards might come away with the idea that raw violence is the way to root out crime. Or they might just get charged up and look for a fight—like the guy two rows in front of me at the advance screening.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Do police sometimes need to break the law to enforce it? Why or why not?

  2. Are Christians ever "above the law"? What if the laws conflict with your faith? (For further insight, see Romans 13:1-7.)

  3. What would happen in your town if the police took big clubs and started breaking up casinos when regular customers were present?

Article continues below
  1. What other recourses would the Sheriff have had other than violence? (State police, FBI, anti-racketeering laws, etc.)

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The violence is improbable but quite explicit. Several scenes feature exotic dancers. Drug use is not excessive and it is portrayed in a negative way. This is not a film for kids, but if teenagers are going to see it, it might be worth discussing the questions in "Talk About It" above.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 04/08/04

In a remake of the famous 1973 vigilante movie Walking Tall, WWF veteran Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson fills the shoes of Joe Don Baker. He plays Chris Vaughn, a former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces who becomes the sheriff of a small town. When drug problems increase in his neighborhood, he closes in on a bunch of crooks at a local casino. What follows involves heavy objects coming into abrupt contact with breakable heads.

While mainstream critics are impressed with The Rock's charisma onscreen, they don't have a lot of praise for the film. Religious critics are especially troubled by the film's tendency to glorify and sensationalize the sheriff's violent tactics.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says the film is primarily "an excuse to give The Rock another starring role in a simple smash 'em up adventure. Smash things up he does … and to be honest, he looks good while doing it. But there's not much more to the picture."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) praises "Johnson's charismatic presence" but concludes with strong disapproval of the film's message. "While the story makes pretensions of a strong moral sense of right and wrong, any conclusions about justice are lost in the sickening din of ammo and crushed bones. Vaughn is an honorable man … but the brutal line-crossing means he employs seem to promote the message that, ultimately, violence is the best course of action for fighting injustice."

Stefan Ulstein (Christianity Today Movies) says it's "long on violence and short on police procedure. Impressionable kids who injure one another trying to replicate TV wrestling stunts in their back yards might come away with the idea that raw violence is the way to root out crime."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) agrees: "This vile—and dangerous—movie glorifies vigilantism and lawlessness. It makes a Rambo movie look like Bambi. Teens who avidly follow professional wrestling will flock to watch The Rock. And in doing so they'll get their heads crammed full of 'cool' new ways to hurt others—and themselves."

Article continues below

Evan D. Baltz (Christian Spotlight) writes, "Nothing in this movie rings true or feels inspired. The movie doesn't really attempt to be anything significant, or answer any real questions about violence or vengeance."

Jimmy Akin (Decent Films) says, with more than a hint of sarcasm, that there are "some good moral messages in the film. From what we see onscreen, we get the distinct impression that casinos, drugs, drinking to excess, and having women gyrate suggestively all over the place are Bad Things." But he also observes that the movie "enjoys some of these (particularly the last) a little too much, and it takes juvenile glee at unrestrained violence for the sake of making the heroes appear over-the-top cool." He adds, "There are a lot of laughs in this film, and to give credit where credit is due, some of them are intentional."

Walking Tall
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for sequences of intense violence, sexual content, drug material and language)
Directed By
Kevin Bray
Run Time
1 hour 26 minutes
Dwayne Johnson, Ashley Scott, Johnny Knoxville
Theatre Release
April 02, 2004 by MGM
Browse All Movie Reviews By: