With Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s passion project Black Adam recently premiering, why not go back to much earlier in his acting career? It seems like a tale of two Rocks. Today, he is known as Dwayne Johnson. Back when today’s example came out, Walking Tall (2004), he was more well known as “The Rock.” He also had hair. It is interesting because the film was made by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) productions. This belies the wrestling roots of today’s star, something that seems all but forgotten. Actually, I am sure all of you that have posters in your room still of The Rock saying “Can you smell what the Rock is cookin?!” remember where he started. A more casual observer might look at the same poster and say, wow, Dwayne Johnson looks really young! And why is he wearing only underwear and boots? Anyway, allow me to reintroduce you to The Rock.
In Walking Tall, The Rock plays Chris Vaughn Jr., a recently retired Army veteran who is returning to his home town in the state of Washington. He does not like what he finds. Not only is his family’s lumber mill closed down, but it is evident that a casino that has been opened nearby is changing the atmosphere in town. It is owned by a former high school friend of his named Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough), who seems oblivious to the problems Chris has noticed, particularly a rising drug trade. For the moment, Chris chooses to take Jay at face value, and accepts an invitation to his casino along with another friend, Ray Templeton (Johnny Knoxville). After getting a show upstairs from a stripper, who turns out to be yet another high school acquaintance named Deni (Ashley Scott), he comes back down to the gaming floor and finds that the craps table is using loaded dice. Not wanting to let this injustice stand, he resists being asked to leave and it takes several bouncers to subdue him. He is then taken to a secure area, tortured, and dumped on a lonely, wooded, Washington road. After Chris gets out of the hospital, Jay protests that he had no knowledge of what was happening, and had those responsible fired. Nonetheless, Chris goes to Sheriff Stan Watkins (Michael Bowen) to press charges, only to be stonewalled. Matters go from bad to worse when Chris discovers that his nephew, Pete Vaughn (Khleo Thomas), is caught with crystal meth that had been sold to him by security guards at the casino. Chris’ suspicions of what is going on at Jay’s establishment are further confirmed when Deni quits her job because of the awful things that go on at the casino. Seeing no legitimate outlet, Chris takes a four-by-four, enters the casino, and proceeds to destroy as much as he can before anyone catches up to him, speeding away in his truck. Because the sheriff is evidently in Jay’s pocket, Chris is arrested and put on trial. Standing for himself after his court appointed lawyer also appears to be in Jay’s employ, Chris does not deny his actions. Instead, he gives an impassioned speech about the corruption the town has been subjected to, shows off the scars from his torture, and vows to run for sheriff to clean up the town. Remarkably, this plays out exactly as he planned, and he promptly fires the entire sheriff’s office. He then deputizes Ray, not because Chris’ friend has any experience being a police officer, but because Ray is familiar with the drug world being a former addict. Chris then proceeds to attempt to intimidate Jay by pulling over the casino owner, busting his taillights, and then issuing a citation for the faulty equipment. Still, his main priority is to get rid of the drugs that have been plaguing the town. To that end, Chris arrests Jay’s righthand man, Booth (Kevin Durand), and impounds the shady character’s truck. Chris and Ray then proceed to tear the vehicle apart, bolt-by-bolt, to find the drugs that they know are being smuggled by Booth. Booth is worried about his car, but he is more anxious about the response that is sure to come from Jay. This arrives in the form of Stan and his former deputies assaulting the station and shooting it full of holes, regardless of Booth being in it. Chris, who also had Deni there for an evening (because every girl’s dream first date is in a sheriff’s office), manages to escape. Given the ferocity of the attack, Chris is worried that it will spill over to his parent’s house. Luckily, he had posted Ray there to protect them, though Ray is no Chris Vaughn. The genuine article has to come to save Ray and his parents. The last thing to do is to confront Jay, who is waiting for Chris at the old lumber mill. Jay has turned it into his headquarters for his drug operation. There is the inevitable fight between the two before Jay is finally defeated and taken into custody. The last thing we see is how the movie is dedicated to the memory of Sheriff Buford Pusser, the real-life person who inspired the film.
I have no clue how closely Walking Tall follows actual events. Apparently, the person on whom The Rock’s character is based did most of his damage in the 1960s and early 1970s, and in Tennessee. Why they had to change the names and places, again, I have not the foggiest idea. It is also not my concern. Whether you are talking about historical fact, or Hollywood dramatization, you are dealing with people that waged virtual one-man wars against drugs and other forms of vice in their respective areas. I have to confess that, particularly when it comes to illegal substances, I have often taken a hard line against such things. In my younger years, I could see myself getting behind the actions of people who are willing to take a stand against something so obviously wrong in society, like Chris. I might have even joined them. My feelings have changed somewhat with me growing in my Faith. To be clear, the Catholic Church does not condone the use of drugs, or the overuse of any kind of substance. What my Faith, and experience, has taught me is compassion. Every person is created by God. Addiction is a sickness, and it often leads one away from God. Indeed, I cannot think of any drugs that have led one to God, though I am sure there are those out there that would offer silly counters to such claims. What matters is that when people do partake in drugs, that their actions be treated as a disease, and a curable one. This means that they can be redeemed, and redemption is one of the hallmarks of Christianity. Sorry, Chris, but you cannot redeem a person who is dead, though I understand your frustration.
I happened upon Walking Tall on Netflix, in case any of this makes you want to see it. To be fair, Chris is a good and honorable man, though a bit prone to violence. I applaud him standing up, or “walking tall,” if you will. I am sorry, I could not resist. My only wish is that he had been able to find a more peaceful solution. Take that as a recommendation, or not.