Some 31 years ago, a raw-boned character actor by the name of Joe Don Baker, (whose name perfectly reflects his Texas roots) shouldered his way into Hollywood’s big-time by portraying real-life Kentucky Sheriff Buford Pusser in a cheap exploitation movie tracing that lawman’s exploits as a reform-minded public official who cleaned up a corrupt county by (paraphrasing Teddy Roosevelt) speaking softly and carrying a very big stick. Whether Pusser was quite as noble as the film depicted him to be, the combination of titillating corruption and quasi-legally sanctioned violence made wonderful grist for the drive-in theater mill, spawning a second version just two years later, (starring Bo Svenson) and a short-lived T.V. series which followed. Now comes the latest version of this tale, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, (a former pro-wrestler and low-rent version of California’s current governor) which features a story line so remote from its predecessors that Pusser’s name had to be placed in a “dedicated to” tag-line just before the final credits to make sure that audiences get the connection. Simply put, the movie stinks, but in an interesting if sobering way…
As Malcom X once cynically put it, “violence is as American as apple pie”; Hollywood filmmakers, with an eye on box-office grosses, have understood this from the earliest days of commercial movie-making. But the manner in which violence is actually depicted on the screen has changed markedly over the years, escalating nastily as the technical capabilities of the industry advanced and the appetites of audiences progressively hardened in response to earlier, more obviously staged presentations of screen mayhem. Gone are the obviously phony stomach-clutching dénouements of 30’s-era screen gangsters like Cagney, Bogart and Robinson; American auidences now require the grislier ferocity of The Godfather or The Sopranos or Hannibal Lector and are far more likely to be offended by screen sexuality than screen gore, (i.e. The Passion of the Christ) especially when the savagery is presented in a story that involves the protection of innocent victims.
The success of Sam Peckinpaugh’s epic but stomach-churning western The Wild Bunch, (1969) coupled with Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series (1973-1977) spawned a whole era of movies with an essentially fascist world-view. Violence is to be condoned, even celebrated, when used by the police to deliver justice in a legal system increasingly perceived as favoring the criminal over his victim. The first Walking Tall simply brought those intertwined themes into the exploitation genre. Then came Charles Bronson’s Death Wish films, a quartet of highly successful but violent melodramas made between 1974 and 1987, which extended this use of vigilantism to individual citizens in a society presumably grown increasingly vulnerable to attack. Thus the leap from vigilantism with a badge to simple, violent revenge– how else to maintain public safety? Was the political resurgence of the far right, with its emphasis on “victim’s rights”, (much in evidence by the 1980) prefigured by these Hollywood potboilers? In the wake of current events, have Americans, (and some Israelis) become subconsciously convinced of their collective innocent victimhood, thus justifying the need for even more violence to “keep the peace”? Has that attitude become a facet of popular entertainment, an example of life imitating art?
In this context comes the latest version of Pusser’s story, set in the Pacific Northwest, and revolving around the domination of an aging mill town taken over by local robber-baron Jay Hamilton Jr., (played, with his usual brazen villainy by the capable character actor Neal McDonough.) Hamilton’s taken the proceeds of his father’s failed mill and ploughed them into a gambling casino which features everything from loaded dice to call girls to illegal drugs. When Pusser returns from a stint in the Army, he’s forced to take the law–in this case a goodly section of 2-by-4– into his own hands, demolishing gaming equipment, pick-up trucks and sports cars before peeling his girl friend down to her panties and bra just prior to engaging in a shoot-out with his crooked predecessor that has the look and feel of a major military engagement.
The violence quotient is up here, not only in quantity but in it’s nauseating explicitness; an entire police station is subjected to withering automatic gunfire, the hero’s torso is brutally disfigured by repeated slashing and the final confrontation between Sheriff Pusser and bad guy Hamilton goes on longer and more excruciatingly than is either credible or necessary. And this in a film rated PG-13!
The original Tall focused on the capacity of criminal corruption to destroy public morality; as such, it functioned as both yahoo entertainment and a cautionary tale about the dangers facing a citizenry willing to allow themselves to become the small-town version of New Orleans, with its “Big Easy” mentality. In the 1970’s, Joe Don Baker’s Pusser was conflicted by his decision to act outside the law and his ultimate victory came at considerable personal cost. In the current version, The Rock’s avenging angel acts out of a simple desire for personal vengeance rather then any notion of civic responsibility and the townspeople aren’t complicit in the corruption of their community as they were in the original–here they’re just presented as spineless wimps, meekly awaiting the arrival of a new strong-man to dictate the rules.
Movies often entertain, and occasionally edify, but they invariably serve as cultural barometers, appealing to those unspoken trends in public taste that cause the spending of an audience’s hard-earned cash. As the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ so lamentably points out, this country’s capacity for accepting cinematic violence, (coupled with our national identification as innocent victims in need of ever more intrusive governmental intervention against those who see the world quite differently) finds perfect expression in this most blatantly jingoistic of movies.
The original version ran 125 minutes; its immediate successor 109; this version thuds to an end in just over 75, but it manages to pack more brutality into its streamlined timeframe than either of its ancestors while providing even less in the way of character motivation, and justification for its blatantly cynical commercialism.
It’s interesting to contemplate what effect this type of movie has on the adolescents who’ll line up to see–and be influenced–by it. Or does this thoroughly mindless junk accurately reflect what preoccupies all of us in this post-9/11 world?