The all-American butt-kicking charisma of former wrestler and action-hero heir-apparent The Rock seems to have a miraculous, popcorn-pleasure effect on otherwise lame movies.
"The Scorpion King" would have been straight-to-video fare without his capricious, self-aware screen presence and "The Rundown" was bargain-basement Steven Seagal fodder that this guy's muscular smile helped lift to the level of a gratifying, preposterous-fracas matinee fodder.
Any fan of The Rock (the actor or the wrestler) will find similar lowbrow satisfaction in his latest B-movie -- a remake of the vigilante-justice flick "Walking Tall."
Based on the shot-eight-times, stabbed-eight-times legend of Tennessee sheriff Buford H. Pusser, who walloped the butts of a ruthless hillbilly gang with a 2x4 he carried around, this update takes even more liberties with the "true story" than the 1973 original did -- starting with turning the hero into Chris Vaughn, a half-Samoan Gulf War veteran. Vaughn (The Rock) returns to his Washington-state hometown to find the mill closed, the streets plagued with druggies and porn shops, and the people's livelihood dependent on a crooked casino run by an old friend named Jay (Neal McDonough) who has become a rich rat.
Offered the VIP treatment at the sprawling joint's tables his first weekend back, Vaughn gets into a brawl with security guards when he catches a craps dealer with loaded dice. Next thing he knows, he's in the basement getting cut up by henchmen, who leave him for dead on a nearby road -- and after he recovers, there's hell to be paid.
Carrying what looks like a railroad tie from the old mill as a weapon, Vaughn declares war and begins administering larger-than-life retribution, with only a short pause in the action when the casino presses charges. Acquitted by a jury of fed-up townspeople, Vaughn is soon elected sheriff (ousting Jay's corrupt lackey) and sets out to finish what he started. But Jay, his thugs and the shady ex-sheriff aren't going to go down without a fight -- several huge gunfights, in fact.
Director Kevin Bray ("All About the Benjamins") makes some savvy cinematic choices -- lighting under-exposures, overhead tracking shots, unexpected silences on the soundtrack -- that make "Walking Tall" snap and crackle with more creativity than anyone would expect of a movie with such base appeal. Continuing to grow as an actor (surprisingly enough), even in a flick as simplistic as this one, The Rock suppresses his cheekiness and gives his character a humble, genuine Everyman appeal. And between the two of them, this picture has just enough going for it to balance out the elements that don't work so well, like over-edited fight scenes with too many action-blurred close-ups that are hard to make heads or tails of until they're all over and the losers are groaning on the ground.
Of course, the film has more fundamental problems -- like the fact that if you stop to think about it for two seconds, this guy's law-flaunting version of justice is no more ethical than the version his crooked predecessor practiced. It just favors the other side of the equation.
The final showdown is also an anti-climactic let-down -- not because it's over the top, but because it's so rudimentary and unevenly matched that it should be over in 10 seconds, not five minutes.
But here's what this review boils down to: As with his more unabashedly fun-loving previous films, "Walking Tall" works only because The Rock can carry it on his absurdly broad shoulders. Whether or not that's good enough to spend money on is up to you.
Run time: 86 mins
In Theaters: Friday 2nd April 2004
Box Office USA: $45.9M
Box Office Worldwide: $46.1M
Distributed by: MGM
Production compaines: Hyde Park Entertainment, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Mandeville Films, Burke/Samples/Foster Productions, WWE Studios, Cub Eight Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 25%
Fresh: 33 Rotten: 100
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Kevin Bray
Starring: Dwayne Johnson as Chris Vaughn, Johnny Knoxville as Ray Templeton, Neal McDonough as Jay Hamilton, Kristen Wilson as Michelle Vaughn, Cobie Smulders as Exotic Beauty, Michael Bowen as Sheriff Stan Watkins, Ashley Scott as Deni, John Beasley as Chris Vaughn Sr., Barbara Tarbuck as Connie Vaughn, Kristen Wilson as Michelle Vaughn, Khleo Thomas as Pete Vaughn, Kevin Durand as Booth
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