Unlike the 2004 remake starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the original Walking Tall is played almost entirely seriously – which no doubt has a lot to do with the fact the real life Buford Pusser was still knocking around at the time and had some involvement in the film. It is also indicative of the era in which it was made, an era in which big budget disaster movies and darker reality-based cinema was on the increase. Whereas the remake stemmed from the post-9/11 world and went directly for broad entertainment status, the same cannot be said for the film from which it draws influence
Buford Pusser returns to his hometown after spending years on the road performing as a wrestler. This aren’t quite as he remembers them, however, as the town is now being run by a great big bunch of unpleasant criminals who have taken control of much of the local economy and left its residents in fear. Buford, being the man that he is, won’t take this lying down and decides to fight back despite the insurmountable odds that stand against him and the very real likelihood that his crusade will get him killed and, quite possibly, the rest of his family. But never fear, because he is joined by Bruce Glover as his reliable deputy – everyone will know him better as Mr Wint in Diamonds and Forever and, perhaps less so, the father of Crispin Glover.
It’s a hard hitting affair, or at least it would have been at the time. Nowadays it sits somewhere between gritty realism and laughable moments of over-exaggerated gesticulation. Blood is over-saturated and looks poor by today’s standards, but that doesn’t get in the way of the violence which is frequent and graphic. The only problem is that it more often than not ruined by the style of the era – over-emphasising everything to the point where it’s one notch away from Airplane-style parody.
At the centre of all this however is Joe Don Baker, latterly known for his appearances in the Pierce Brosnan Bond films as Wade, and a brief stint before that as the villain in the Timothy Dalton Bond film The Living Daylights. Through thick and thin, despite multiple attempts on his life, he continues on his quest for justice. He attempts to clean up his home town by using the letter of the law to his advantage. Baker displays a belligerent expression throughout, so he wasn’t exactly stretched in his performance.
So, a worthy endeavour if considered in its original context, although it may lack appeal to more modern audiences. Add to this the limited distinction of the villains and their personalities – and the fact there are a few too many of them – there is little to help build support for Buford’s quest to clean up the town from the audience’s perspective, nor does the occasional feeling that time is passing rather slowly – a common problem for films made at this point in time, just take a look at The Godfather. Still, it’s a solid way of spending a couple of hours, if nothing else for watching Joe Don Baker dramatically rip his own shirt off, Hulk Hogan style, in a tense court scene.