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Walking Tall (2004)

MVD Entertainment Group // PG-13 // August 14, 2018
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 11, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

I'd like to say that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has developed a lot in terms of being a movie star since the earliest points of his Hollywood career, but … honestly? His acting today isn't significantly better than it was a decade and a half ago, but considering his inherent screen presence, that's not a bad thing. Instead of trying to work himself into roles that are unsuited for his specific type of persona, he's grown far better at selecting -- and now, as a producer, crafting -- the right projects for his elevated semi-retired wrestler's charisma and gusto, often in projects that succeed through some degree of levity, divorcement from reality, and grandness of scale. When The Rock goes smaller and more grounded in actual events, such as with Snitch and to a lesser extent Faster, the relative authenticity of the story existing around him suffers in his presence. An early indicator of this phenomenon is Walking Tall, his overly straight-faced and unfittingly bombastic remake of a ‘70s revenge flick rooted in true events.

Johnson doesn't embody real-life sheriff Buford Pusser in this rendition, instead playing statuesque ex-soldier Chris Vaughn, formerly of the Army's Special Forces. After returning to his small hometown, which once thrived on manufacturing and mom-‘n-pop shops, he's discovered that businesses have been shuttered and the bulk of the town's income come from a glitzy casino and quasi-strip club, owned and operated by an old buddy of his, Hamilton (Neal McDonough). Discovering the corruption in his town, which also extends to the unhelpful police department, Vaughn takes it upon himself to clean everything up to the best of his abilities. With shotguns, 4x4s made of cedar, and his trusty friend Ray (Johnny Knoxville) by his side, Vaughn deploys the confidence and violence that the military earned him, throwing his family and friends in danger as he takes the law into his own hands and exacts revenge on Hamilton and his cronies.

In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek twist in storytelling, the protagonist of Walking Tall has been changed from a retired professional wrestler to a vaguely discharged military veteran, further guiding the story into serious territory. Having The Rock playing the ex-wrestler role might've been on-the-nose, sure, but one can't help but think about the potential of the parallels and how he could've grappled with the idea of choosing to hang up the tights and enjoy a simpler, less-dangerous life, whether the wife's responsible for the decision or not (he's not married in this version). Instead, Vaughn's returning from combat duty, frontloading the character with experience in actual life-or-death situations and the potential for post-trauma stress or other regrets. The change in the character's former profession seems undercooked here, with The Rock's signature glances and uncontrollable machismo struggling with the ambiguous seriousness of both Vaughn's experience in killing and the reason that his service ended.

Walking Tall tries to accommodate for this shift in characterization, and in the process also embellishes the action into something more appropriate for The Rock's bigger-than-life persona. The small-town intimacy of the original film has been beefed up with soldierly determination akin to Rambo: First Blood and the renegade clean-it-up bravado of Road House, which leads into Hollywood-style bluster just as soon as Vaughn gets thrown in a headlock. Bodies are slammed around, goons drop in from higher levels of a building, and plentiful gunshots are unloaded later on as Vaughn battles against seemingly well-equipped bad guys employed by the casino, and as the design of the action gets bigger and bolder, it undercuts the downhome revenge narrative more and more. Thing is, the brawling and shootouts aren't interesting enough to appreciate on that brain-turned-off level, either, resulting in a peculiar establishment of the stakes as Vaughn tears through enemies and suffers the consequences when the odds overwhelm him.

Had Walking Tall taken itself less seriously, perhaps unashamedly going in an entirely different tonal direction than that of the original, a lot of this extravagance might've even worked in its favor. This remake attempts to have it both ways, though, hitting some of the same sobering narrative beats of the original and replacing others with poorly thought-out dramatics, filled with dumb decisions and missed opportunities contrived to keep The Rock alive so he can continue kicking ass. Even with professional jackass Johnny Knoxville stumbling around and a scene in which a woman wearing a bra and jeans unloads a clip of bullets at some jabronis, Walking Tall remains largely devoid of humor and lightness as it stays dedicated to arriving at similar -- albeit less grim and R-rating oriented -- endpoints as the original. Even though it's still about substantive revenge and small-town pride, this is a wooden remake that doesn't know how to properly serve what The Rock is cookin'.

Video and Audio:

Walking Tall was released by MGM in one of their early Blu-ray + DVD combo sets almost a decade ago now, in which a MPEG-2 transfer was plopped on a disc without any extras accompanying it. While I never had the opportunity to check out that transfer, it's safe to assume that beyond a shift to a higher-grade AVC file, there likely aren't going to be many -- any? -- differences between the two since this one has the tell-tale signs of being an older HD transfer from MGM. Colors are generally tolerable enough despite being weighed down by the early nature of it, with some pinkish-tan hues and rich green escaping from the deliberately muted palette, while neon shades boldly crop up in and around the casino. Shadows are generally rather lifeless, though, and they do no favors to the general lack of depth in the image itself, often appearing flat and lifeless. What's most bothersome here is the caliber of detail: some garments and textures have a moderate amount of fineness to ‘em, but there's a pretty consistent amount of smoothness visible in closeups and distanced scenery shots, and the image as a bit of jitteriness when the camera quickly pans. A watchable but unformidable Blu-ray presentation.

The DTS-HD Master Audio is about as shrug-worthy, though a few obvious moments of action-movie intensity flex enough sonic muscle to take it up a notch or two. Dialogue does have enough natural clarity to be satisfying, though there's little robust midrange resonance to note and some higher-end thinness of its vintage. Some surround atmosphere can be heard in the casino and during gunfights, but the responsiveness feels very constricted to the rear channels, cheapening the activity and making it feel like separate components instead of an extension of the full breadth of the surround stage. Punches, kicks, and bodyslams are generally weak and a bit raspy at a distance, though higher-end parts of the sound design -- chips falling, wood planks clanking -- have a reputable degree of high-end naturality to ‘em. Explosions and larger, room-filling crashes are just kinda … there, full of enough volume without the sonic blowback that'd give them action-movie interest. It's a serviceable Master Audio track, one that does do its job better than the visuals.

Special Features:

The only noteworthy thing to mention about the extras is that that do, indeed, appear on the Blu-ray this time around. Nothing new can be found in that regard, though: a pair of Audio Commentaries, one with Dwayne Johnson and another with the Director and Crew, a brief Fight the Good Fight (8:44, 4x3) stunt featurette, and a collection of little tidbits including three Deleted Scenes, Bloopers (:48, 4x3) an Alternate Ending (1:20, 4x3 Letterbox), a Photo Gallery, and a Theatrical Trailer have all been repurposed from the prior MGM DVD. It's interesting to hear The Rock chat about the action in the featurette, in which he mentions that there aren't any explosions or gunplay or "none of that" … when a bit of that stuff is actually in the movie late in the game. His general philosophy about the rawness of the action is commendable, though, and the kind of mindset that would gradually seep into the action genre over the coming decade, leading into the likes of Taken, The Equalizer, and John Wick.

Final Thoughts:

Walking Tall telegraphs a few effective punches while telling the story of an ex-soldier who takes the law into his own hands while getting rid of the corruption in his hometown, and it's always fun to some degree to watch Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson flexing his action muscles. That being said, the small-town revenge story doesn't have the weight it should, the action tends to be too overzealous for that scope, and The Rock struggles to mesh his larger-than-life persona with that of someone from the military. Tweaks to the original tend to be a disservice in this remake, as does this film's insistence on seriousness when many facets are in place for it to be lighter and more enjoyable. The Rundown, this isn't. A middling action movie receives an equal Blu-ray treatment from MVD, with a dated transfer and ported extras. Rent It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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