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Published: 4/2/2004

Movie review: Walking Tall ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In Walking Tall, a new remake of the 1973 vigilante hixpolitation blockbuster, a peace-loving man returns to a sleepy burg after many years away.

He visits his parents and settles in, but can't help looking around his hometown and noticing what a dump it's become. He means well and preaches understanding to a small band of friends. He tolerates the changes with a wary sideways glance, but when he enters the town's new den of impropriety, a casino overflowing with drugs and sex, something snaps.

He flips the tables of these smut merchants and tries driving them from his sight. But instead he is captured, and for the next 90 minutes, beaten, spat on, tortured, and left for dead.

Sound familiar?

Of course there is no literal or intended connection between this new Walking Tall, a certified guilty pleasure starring the very likeable action star The Rock, and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. No connection, other than both are products of a moment at the multiplex where righteousness is in the air, and extreme violence is tolerated as long as the purpose seems warranted.

The Passion included the kind of bloodshed that normally ends a movie with bloody retribution. You might say Walking Tall - which tells the story of how the tortured man fights back and returns some dignity to his hometown - has the third act Gibson couldn't fall back on.

It's going to be huge.

In other words, if your idea of foreign policy is bombing 'em back to the stone age, your time is now. The vigilante movie (usually traced back to Charles Bronson and Death Wish) returns in force this month: There's The Punisher, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Man on Fire. But Walking Tall is the real deal, cheap vigilante action without the pretense of art - a fun, forgettable drive-in movie in this day of precious few drive-ins.

The first Walking Tall starred Joe Don Baker as a Buford Pusser and came along when crime rates soared, when America had changed so much in the 1960s there was a fear that small towns would be overrun by drugs and corruption. A way of life was dying and needed armed defense.

This new Walking Tall is speedier, even less plot-driven, and shares only a little common ground with the original: With his name above the title for the first time, The Rock plays Chris Vaughn, former Army special forces man. Tennessee becomes Washington state. Moonshiners become the very Aryan Jay (a slimy Neal McDonough), who runs a methamphetamine business out of his crooked casino. Then The Rock runs for sheriff.

I don't need to tell you the rest. You know the rest. Corruption needs stamping out, in this case with a sunny Johnny Knoxville as deputy. Why vigilante movies are popping up again can only mean small town values must be threatened again. The threat of terrorism can't help, either.

What's refreshing is The Rock and Knoxville, who have gentle smiles and easy charms. They're a Martin and Lewis with action movie eyebrows, who never pretend the cliches they're handed are anything but. They don't even seem to notice, by film's end, they've transformed their town into a police state. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.



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