Apparently, the people who stage professional wrestling matches looked for the story that was most like a wrestling match and picked the story of Buford Pusser, the sheriff who cleaned up a small Southern town. That is, if your definition of cleaning up includes smacking the bad guys with a 2×4. This might work as a WWE grudge match, but it does not work as a movie because it undermines the story it is trying (if half-heartedly) to tell.
The original 1973 movie with Joe Don Baker playing the real-life Pusser teetered on the brink of vigilantism. This remake produced by World Wrestling Entertainment unhesitatingly dives in with a triple gainer.
Over the opening credits, a big guy with an army duffel bag comes home to find that the mill has been closed, the old sheriff has died, and the town is now dominated by a casino. We then get about 20 minutes of “Look who’s back in town” moments, with ominous comments like, “I don’t know if you noticed, but this ain’t exactly home any more.” Then we get about an hour of smackdowns as our hero (now named Chris Vaughn and played by The Rock) gets a beating that would kill a normal man and then does a lot of get-well sit-ups so he can take that 2×4 and open up some cans of whup-ass on the bad guys.
Vaughn’s nephew (Khleo Thomas of Holes) has been buying drugs at the casino. So Vaughn takes a cedar plank to the casino and smashes up the slot machines and many of the people who work there. When he is put on trial, he does not deny what he did. But he tells the jury that if they acquit him, he’ll run for sheriff and clean up the town.
Yes, they know how to stage fights, though these are more intense and graphic than the MPAA normally permits in a PG-13. But the story requires a level of credibility and sympathy for the characters that it cannot come close to earning. Instead, it just assumes it, dissipating whatever built-in goodwill any movie about beating the bad guys should generate.
The Rock has a great deal of charm, and Johnny Knoxville brings a wry warmth to the standard best friend role. But in a telling detail about the crude-ifying of this story, instead of the sweet wife in the original movie, Vaughn gets a stripper girlfriend (Ashley Scott), who shows up at the sheriff’s office with a home-cooked meal and fires off rounds while looking fetching in a red lace bra.
We’re supposed to cheer for Vaughn when he breaks the law just because he’s on the side of the good guys. It’s impossible not to like The Rock, but a battle inside or outside the ring has to feel a little bit fair and this one just doesn’t. It’s just not as fun as it is supposed to be when Vaughn smashes the tail-lights of the bad guy’s Porsche or beats someone up while explaining his official sheriff’s office policy of “delicacy and precision.” It’s not a good sign when you start to feel sorry for the bad guys. Maybe it’s not as much fun to have a sheriff recite the Miranda warnings, but there has to be more reason than we are given here for beating everyone up without trying to arrest them. And as for the dialogue — I think “I put down my gun for good” has to be just behind “I’ll be right back” as the top candidates for the “movie words spoken just so they can almost immediately be wrong” award.
Parents should know that this movie is close to an R for extreme and graphic violence and very strong language. Characters are drug dealers and a young boy smokes marijuana and takes crystal meth. Characters drink and smoke. There are scenes in a casino including scantily-clad dancers. There is a non-explicit sexual situation. One of the strengths of the movie is its portayal of a loving and very functional inter-racial family.
Families who see this movie should talk about the difference between being a law enforcer and being a vigilante.
Families interested in finding out more about the man whose life inspired this movie can read about the late Buford Pusser here. Those who will be near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee can visit his museum. Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy seeing The Rock in The Rundown and The Scorpion King.