You get a certified star who goes by the nom de granite of The Rock to head up a remake of the 1973 righteous noggin-clobberer Walking Tall, you know right away who’s going to walk tallest when one-man justice has been served and the credits roll. There’s not a person I know, me included, who doesn’t love The Rock for the amused commentary his arched eyebrow supplies on his muscle-y shenanigans both in the wrestling ring and on the screen. There’s not a guy I know, at any rate, who hasn’t been looking forward to seeing The Rock pick up the big wooden stick first swung by Joe Don Baker more than 30 years ago. (This time the sheriff’s name is Chris Vaughn rather than Buford Pusser, and he lives in a Washington logging town rather than Tennessee, but the club he wields carries the same bone-breaking properties.)
And certainly the simple, brute-strength retribution fable can be grasped even by those coming to this violent libertarian tale of skull-smashing ”heroism” without the context of the original movie or its two 1970s sequels: It’s a further fictionalized rethinking of the story of a real Tennessee sheriff who took the law into his own hands out of raging frustration with a system gone rotten.
But for those who do remember Baker’s Buford Pusser, an average guy (okay, as played by Baker a barrel-chested average guy) who sees his wholesome America being wrested from him by the kind of new, frightening crime and corruption that was upending the country in the 1970s, this ”Walking Tall” loses in depth what it gains in star power. Directed thwack-to-thwack by Kevin Bray (”All About the Benjamins”) from a team-written screenplay invested in the easy charm of The Rock’s brand of friendly cool — not to mention costar Johnny Knoxville’s ”Jackass”-perfected brand of antic daring in the role of Vaughn’s loyal best friend — the film has a different vibe: To live up to The Rock’s inherent glamour, the badness of the lead bad guy (Neal McDonough, who breaks men with the glare of his ice blue eyes) is even more exaggerated and cartoonish, the local cops who abet him even sleazier. The hero’s a single guy now, who hooks up with a girlfriend (Ashley Scott) so rockable, she spends quality time in a lacy red bra and shoots a gun during a melee. The role of the hero’s nephew goes to groovy little ”Holes” star Khleo Thomas.
”Why does it always have to be your fight?” Vaughn’s father (John Beasley) frets as the son gets ready to start the score-settling that will take up the remainder of the picture. But by now we want it to be The Rock’s fight, and we accept, matter-of-factly, the mowing down of enemies — not because of the thrill of watching an Everyman shake up the system (how ’70s), but because it’s The Rock, baby, and that’s what he does best.