There was a time, I promise you, when the prospect of a remake did not immediately cause members of the reviewing press to reach for their sedation of choice. No, there was a time when people actually looked forward to seeing what Judy Garland would do with the Esther Blodgett role in A STAR IS BORN that Janet Gaynor made famous. When we flocked in droves to watch a very sweaty Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd duke it out in chariots the way Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman had in the first version of BEN-HUR. Heck, even Hitchcock dabbled in remakes, turning THE 39 STEPS into THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, though, it must be noted, the latter did inflict the song ?Que Sera, Sera? on the world.
Those days are long gone. Perhaps it was the third remake of A STAR IS BORN, the vanity showcase with Streisand. Perhaps it was the Marty Feldman remake of BEAU GESTE. Whatever the root cause, we are left today in a world that regurgitates film classics as just so many cinematic hairballs, much diminished by the experience of transmutation.
And so it is that we come to WALKING TALL, a re-make not of classic art, but of classic schlock. True, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS pulled this off. Also true that neither of the versions took themselves seriously and that was the key. The current incarnation the saga of Buford Pusser is deadly serious, or at least wants to be. What we have is film that in the olden days would have played at drive-ins in and around the less densely populated areas of the Deep South, been responsible for a few unplanned pregnancies there, and then disappeared without a trace. Nowadays, it gets a 1200 screen opening and the dire promise of a DVD release. And if it weren’t for the thematic undercurrent favorably depicting fascism and summary justice as the solution to all of life’s little problems, it would be laughable.
Several changes have been made in this version. First of all, Buford Pusser, a name many people found hard to get behind, has been changed to Chris Vaughn (The Rock). Second, the sleepy south of the original is now the nippy Pacific Northwest, perhaps because Canadian locations can mimic many things, but swamps that close to the tundra, not so easy. Chris comes home to his tiny Washington state burg after eight years in the Army Special Forces to find that things and people have pretty much gone to pot since he left. The mill closed, his father’s been laid off, his best pal, Ray (Johnny Knoxville), went to Seattle to become a singer and came back a junkie, and his ex-girlfriend now wears a latex bikini and performs a pas de deux with a chrome pole at the new casino. That would be the one run by another of Chris’ old pals (Neal McDonough), the one who sold the mill and started turning a Norman Rockwell kind of town into one with a Home Depot and an adult bookstore. Chris isn’t too thrilled with any of this, but when his nephew (Khleo Thomas) almost ODs on crystal meth that the casino’s security guards are selling, it?s time to bust some heads.
It’s all pretty silly really. The plot putt-putts along with nothing better to do than be a buffer between bouts of butt-kicking. Said smacking of posteriors, and other areas, is the reason for the film and, truth be told, there is something very compelling about The Rock, bodacious pecs, abs, and all the other muscle groups flexed, swinging the 2 x 4 that is Chris’ weapon of choice. It’s no stretch to believe that this man-mountain really could walk into a casino and not only take it apart, but also wallop the gun-toting security staff into a puddle of pudding. Little else has that smack of authenticity. Chris, on trial for that little brouhaha, mounts a defense that might give even Ghengis Khan pause. In short order, juris prudence, due process, civil rights, and just plain common sense fly out the window as Chris somehow becomes the sheriff and a turf war of mammoth proportions ensues. Things blow up, things burn down, and the number of semi-automatic weapons spewing lead leads to serious pondering about the gun control laws in the Pacific Northwest.
Ordinarily, it would be hard to hate film that takes such a firm stand against drugs, gambling, gender exploitation, and chain stores. Yet the perfunctory script fails to take advantage of any of The Rock’s real cinematic strengths. It seems to have confused him with an actual 2 x 4, Steven Segal, and that’s a real shame. Segal could probably have used the work. The Rock, though, is more than just a finely tuned fighting machine. He’s a guy with serious charisma and a soulful, even sweet side that peeks out occasionally here when he’s trying to charm his nephew, or showing a bemused patience for, Ray, the melon-headed sidekick who becomes his melon-headed deputy, a deputy with far too much fascination for both bull horns and chain saws. The Rock has also got a dead-one sense of comic timing, as we saw in THE RUNDOWN, and to not use that as much as possible instead of relegating it to a few moments of screen time is a crime on par with the ones depicted in this film.
Oh Rock, Rock. Where did it all go so very wrong? Drop this remake nonsense. You’re an original. Find a script that’s one, too.