Requiem for The Rock

Kyle Smith

Requiem for The Rock

The Rock is not a subtle man.

Nor are his movies. “Walking Tall’s” exposition shows The Rock’s army sergeant Chris Vaughn discovering his idyllic hometown has turned into John Ashcroft’s worst nightmare. Drug deals go down between rustic main street buildings the requisite “Old Mill” has been closed by dastardly casino owner Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough) who wags a bottle of Bud out of his Escalade after ordering a cheap shot on the stoic Vaughn in a pick-up football game. Later, Hamilton’s drug-dealing, gun-toting security guards beat Vaughn mercilessly after he calls out a cheating craps dealer.

Fittingly, Vaughn’s savior is the backwoods legal system. In one of the greatest trials ever, the witnesses lie, Vaughn fires his lawyer, speaks directly to the jury while the judge lazily calls him in contempt, sways a unanimous decision and is, subsequently, elected sheriff.

But vigilantism itself is in complete opposition to subtlety, so “Walking Tall” works. It might have fared better as a comic book adaptation, especially given The Rock’s disturbing physique, but its bluntness and conviction make it a rousing movie capable of a classic cinematic trick: pissing off the viewer.

“Walking Tall” might convey moral injustices with the delicacy of Vaughn’s trademark weapon (a 2×4 of phallic power apparently culled from one of The Rock’s wrestling matches), but his capable talent and charisma really instill genuine anger in the audience toward the villains. The kids sitting next to me in the theater urged The Rock to “whoop some ass,” and I found my fists clenched not just over the movie’s haphazard structure but also in silent response to these trespasses on the helpless Rock.

“Walking Tall” is itself a remake of a 1973 “hixploitation” vigilante film by the same name, starring B-movie god Joe Don Baker. A year later saw “Death Wish,” the model for all vigilante films — and the rest of Charles Bronson’s career. When Bronson’s wife is murdered and his daughter raped, the cops prove ineffectual. Bronson then takes the matter into his own hands and goes on a ridiculous killing spree that the film justifies as revenge. He’s a most heroic anti-hero.

It is interesting that the original “Walking Tall” and “Death Wish” came out — and were well-received — in the waning years of the Nixon administration. The Rambo movies were products of Reagan/Bush America, as were another pair of films: ubiquitous badass Scott Glenn’s 1987 vehicle “Man on Fire” and 1989’s “The Punisher” starring everybody’s favorite Russian, Dolph Lundgren. Curiously, both of these films have also been remade and will be released in the next two weeks.

The new “Man on Fire” casts Denzel Washington as a former Marine who goes on a tear against those who have wronged a family he was assigned to protect. Both “Punisher” films are based on the comic book premise — after the murder of his family, special agent Frank Castle exacts revenge on the killers.

The vigilante films all have recurring themes: the male military veteran, the brutal attack on his family, the inadequacy of the law, and the justification of murder as a solution. The vigilante film is a product of conservatism, not necessarily embodying conservative politics but consistently espousing the ideal of self-realization.

Given the success of Quentin Tarantino’s vigilante variation “Kill Bill” and “Walking Tall’s” strong opening weekend, perhaps America is prime to embrace the go-getting action hero of the 80s rather than the helpless disaster films that characterized popular cinema in the 90s. 

Communication sophomore and film columnist Kyle Smith is film editor of PLAY. He can be reached at [email protected]