One of the first things I ever wrote for Den of Geek was a review of Abel Ferrara’s King Of New York, a wonderfully scuzzy crime epic with Christopher Walken in the lead role. In that film, Walken gives us everything that makes him great – that off-kilter delivery, gesticulating body language, a calculatedly terrifying intelligence – and those things also play a part in how his performances become over-familiar, bordering on clichéd.
Walken playing Walken in every role has become Alex Ferguson securing another cup title, Dave Grohl howling unintelligibly live instead of singing his lyrics, Nick Hornby writing intelligently about music, and so on. We are in the domain of great men ploughing their greatness into the ground until it inevitably turns tiresome.
And yet Walken remains an unusual screen presence in mainstream Hollywood films, which allows him to effortlessly become the best thing in The Rock’s second headline gig Welcome To The Jungle, also known as The Rundown (2003). As ridiculously-named baddie Hatcher, he barely moves or displays any interest in his line readings, yet runs circles around his fellow cast members. His final scenes in the film allow him to finally cut loose, espousing a twisted moral stance that attempts to turn his slavemaster opportunist to a victim. Director Peter Berg – he of fatally flawed yet fascinating studio pics like Hancock and Friday Night Lights – keeps proceedings so vanilla that Walken barely has to pull out his best Walken to keep us entertained.
The Rock gets more to do here than he did in The Scorpion King, getting to deliver lines with a shirt on and further develop his well-honed comic timing, but he’s been so coddled with a buddy-comedy storyline that it gives the impression that the studios still weren’t confident enough to let him headline. Seann William Scott (the Charles Grodin our generation deserves) goes through the jungle-hijinx textbook with him, braying and hooting all the while.
There’s the bit where they meet ‘the natives’, the bit where they get booby trapped, the bit where they realise that nature is zany, and so forth. It culminates in an American-saves-the-natives finale, which is the cherry on top of the ‘Foreigners are crazy, huh?!’ cake. (I’ve not even touched on Ewen Bremner’s that-can’t-be-a-real-Scottish-accent pilot or Rosario Dawson’s Exotica Warrior Chica, but rest assured they’re ingredients in the cake.)
However, quality control is over-rated in the star-making process. It doesn’t matter if movie-star vehicles are good films, because if they have one capital-G great scene, they’ve done their job. Welcome To The Jungle has one such scene – a pre-credits sprawl through a nightclub where His Rockness takes down a team of rowdy American footballers, first as politely as possible, then with numerous Rock Bottoms. As he enters the nightclub, an uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger walks past our hero and delivers one line: “Have fun.” It’s an utterly transparent attempt at baton-passing, but for one scene and one scene alone, the film runs with it.
Walking Tall is a 1973 film that played loose and fast with a ripped-from-the-headlines story: former Marine and wrestler Buford Hayse Pusser became a Tennessee sheriff, almost single-handedly taking on the crims littered along his state’s lines. Before his 1974 passing, Pusser was already a pop cultural fixture, inspiring novels as well as an ongoing series of films. His infamy made him a good ol’ boy legend, but the series of loosely based factuals ramped up the by-any-means-necessary rhetoric and created an icon.
Kevin Bray’s Walking Tall (2004) is a film about all-American archetypes. There is the small town setting, war heroes, high school sweethearts, a community-empowering means of employment via a closed sawmill. These are old traditions. More modern traditions in American film regularly call back to the 70s, the era of the original Walking Tall.
I’ve been thinking about a fascinating interview that the director James Gray (We Own The Night) recently conducted with The Playlist, focusing on what he believes is missing from the current strain of American cinema – in particular, the wilful ignorance of class divisions. “There’s a notion that social or economic class divides don’t exist [in US films], when of course they do,” he said. In the best possible way, Gray is a man-out-of-time, a filmmaker who would have fit amongst the leading lights of the American New Wave back in the 70s.
It may not be considered as part of the New Wave – it was too reactionary, held little pretentions of art – but Walking Tall ’73 was certainly a film of its era. Kevin Bray’s remake updates this strain of American unease, painting in broad but effective strokes. Unlike the unrealities of Welcome To The Jungle, we’re in an American town with class issues – new Hummers are happily flaunted as status symbols while middle-class families quietly hunker down to deal with their economic standing. At the centre of it all is a newly erected casino, replacing the sawmill as the town’s primary employer, erected on corruption and the working class’s dwindling disposable income.
Every character, from The Rock’s Pusser stand-in through Johnny Knoxville’s ex-addict to Neal McDonough’s casino owner/antagonist, grew up together in the shadow of the Kitsap County mountains. In the film’s climax, McDonough reminisces on the characters playing in the town’s closed sawmill as children. Despite this, their divergent paths are all too apparent – the class structure favours those who played dirty in the name of entrepreneurship.
Everyone else is bundled into a go-nowhere economic situation, be they ruined by years of drug abuse or working in the hospital. The film’s finale finds The Rock fighting McDonough in the woods. The former wields a giant wooden club, his opponent an axe, the scene acting as a battle for the Soul of America between Mr Hard Working American and Sir Godless Child of Commerce. It’s unsubtle, yes, but insanely effective.
It’s hokum, of course. Part of me feels thick for finding Real World Issues in a film that makes time for a court sequence approaching “I’m Spartacus!” levels of delirium. See also: a series of gratuitous gunfights, one of which is conducted with comedy sound effects and another with a woman in a state of undress. (This is all great, by the way.) But unlike anything in the Rockography thus far, Walking Tall’s pared-down, real-world approach makes it a far better vehicle for its star than buddy comedies or franchise excursions.
He displays an earnestness that works well with the film’s tone, his eyes bulging into end-of-tether gazes as often as his Movie Star Grin. And sure, you can learn that in the ring to a degree, but on-screen it’s subtler, more intricate. Early on in the film, The Rock and his friends approach McDonough’s casino for a night out. “It’s the subtle attention to aesthetics that I find most impressive,” Knoxville quips, joking about the gaudy neon building sitting in the vast shadow of the mountains. And there’s some truth in that statement – Walking Tall is pleasingly dumb and not-dumb at the same time.
And unexpectedly, it actually pays attention to the Rock’s mixed-race heritage, casting him with a black father and white mother and presenting it without comment. (Remember this point. It’ll become more salient with time.)
You can read part one of Daniel’s Rockography here.
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