Everybody Loves a Man in Uniform

Walking Tall (2004)

Walking Tall (2004) | MGM

Six-foot-four and God knows how many pounds of pure, military-sculpted muscle, Chris Vaughn (The Rock) swaggers out from his gas-guzzling, mountain-ready beast of a black pickup truck and stares impassively down through his reflective shades. He reaches back into his vehicle and removes a heavy wooden club. As he stands there in his black shirt, blue jeans, and working man’s heavy boots, the camera crawls lustily over Vaughn’s size and strength, his no-bullshit demeanor. He looks like security, safety, and power. He is an ideal not just in terms of his shirt-bursting physique, but as the embodiment of order, a direct appeal to the hearts and minds of those who believe that the world is at its best with big, strong men there to keep everyone in line. 

Walking Tall tells the story of Vaughn’s return to his home town after several years away serving in the military. Like many a yarn spun about good old American towns, what Vaughn finds is not what he left behind. The mill, where men used to work up an honest sweat to feed their families, has been closed down. Its owner, a local rich kid who inherited it from his father, has built a casino to serve as the new nucleus of the town’s economy. Hard graft and robust, durable products have been replaced by cheap thrills and expensive sleaze. The police won’t dare challenge the casino’s authority, even as drugs file infection-like out of its dark rooms and into the community. 

Vaughn pretty quickly find himself squaring off with the casino and its gangsters, a battle which culminates in him grabbing an all-American two-by-four and laying down a one-man blitzkrieg on the whole outfit. When the Sheriff hauls him in, Vaughn gives an impassioned defence of his actions before the whole town. He was fighting for them, he says, for their right to walk tall.  His defense resonates so strongly that he is able to ride the resultant wave of popular support all the way to the sheriff’s office. He claims the badge, fires the entire force, makes a deputy of his slacker buddy, and takes to roaming the town with a slightly more bespoke version of his signature two-by-four displayed proudly in the back of his truck. 

The story is based to some degree on the actual life of Sheriff Buford Pusser, and on the surface is a pretty standard “good man takes his town back” revenge tale. But really, it’s a fantasy, and a very specific fantasy, designed to appeal to very specific desires. It plays to the lust for a strong man to take things in hand and put them right. To solve all the problems by sheer brute strength and force of will. To offer no carrot to wrongdoers and to be ruthless with the stick. 

He doesn’t care about what people think. He isn’t worried about hurting people’s feelings. He doesn’t want to hear your sob story. You broke the rules, now he’s going to break your legs. 

And this is still a type that plays very well in a bunch of demographics. Every time a video of a police officer body slamming someone goes viral, there are as many comments proudly exclaiming, “Well don’t break the law then, that’s what you get!” as there are denouncing police brutality. At the top of the pyramid, guys like Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro all know that one of the quickest ways to energize their base is to play to this exact sentiment. They talk about “getting tough” on crime and characterize criminals as bloodthirsty animals who only understand the language of violence. And, every time, great crowds of people cheer their willingness to deal with them by whatever means necessary. 

Like all great thirst traps, Walking Tall plays to something primal: the desire for someone big and strong enough to heft a club and protect us when the predators come prowling. To make us feel safe. To make us feel like we can walk tall. 

It is appealing because it is straightforward. You look around your town, your city or your country, and you see things that frighten you. That mean you harm and endanger your pleasant, peaceful mode of life. You feel undignified, walking about so fearfully, and angry that you should have to. You want those things that frighten you to not be there anymore, so when someone comes along and offers to destroy them and looks like they might just have the muscle to pull it off, it’s hard not to fall for them, and easy not to ask too many more questions. 

Security, safety and power are universally, innately appealing. Chris Vaughn is all those things wrapped up in bulging muscles and blue jeans. 

But the fantasy that he represents, and which Walking Tall revels in, is rooted—like a lot of erotic archetypes—in an unrealistic vision of the world. The iron fist approach to stopping crime is emotionally satisfying because it is visceral, direct, and empowering, but it doesn’t actually work. Even leaving aside the moral issues they pose (and, really, that’s a hell of a thing to leave aside), brutal punishment and brutish police tactics have never been found to effectively deter criminals or reduce crime. Criminals become criminals because of deep-rooted, systemic issues of all kinds; having someone at the end of the production line smashing each one is no good so long as the machine is still running. In the end, no matter how strong the man or how big his club, he’s just playing whack-a-mole. 

So Walking Tall is a fantasy, a dream of a world in which this approach is both morally irreproachable and immediately, undeniably effective. Its gritty details and vague realism give it the impression of real life but, like the dreams in Inception, the fabric is shot through with little details that reveal it to be a counterfeit if you push right up against it. And, like a bad dream, it’s the details relating to fear that become most warped. 

Primarily, Walking Tall plays to the mainstream, middle class-ish terror of all things drug-related. Spurred on by decades of media hysteria, just bringing the word “drugs” into the equation is one of the quickest ways to mark out the bad guys in any action story. Mention that someone is a dealer and the hero can pretty much drop them out of a window in the next scene without losing the audience’s empathy.  Mention any of those drugs ending up in the hands of children, and you’ve written your main character an ethical blank check to cash in as many broken bones or bullet-riddled bodies as they see fit. Walking Tall knows where these buttons are and jabs at them hard and fast, telling a story so paranoid, outlandish, and unreasonable that it could only be believed by those whose entire understanding of narcotics comes from the frantic reportage of conservative newscasts and suburban parenting blogs.   

Vaughn spies his teenager nephew furtively smoking a joint one day and frowns about it. Maybe some viewers would say, “Hey, it’s just weed, that’s no big deal” but Chris Vaughn knows that it’s a gateway drug and it’s illegal for a reason and, boom, just a few scenes later said nephew has graduated straight to crystal meth and is being wheeled away in an ambulance. And if all that didn’t seem enough like a half-assed high school play about just saying no, a nearby kid dressed suspiciously like a rapper then immediately confesses to having pushed the drugs on him (because if there is one thing teenagers love talking other teenagers into doing, it’s meth). The good kid is still a good kid, just a victim of peer pressure. 

That whole episode, the divorce from reality combined with the desire to shift blame, is the film and its worldview in a nutshell. The most important idea, the concept you must affix inside the audience’s mind if you want them lusting after your strong man, is the sense not only that they are in danger, but that the danger is coming from outside the community. It can’t be internal; that would call into question their righteous identity while also asking for boring, practical solutions like economic reform and welfare policies. No, it needs to be some dark, outside force, creeping over the borders of their clean, quaint American home. Something unfamiliar and recognizably “Other.” It needs to be something we can batter with a two-by-four without feeling bad. 

So Walking Tall invents a cabal of criminal drug dealers headed up by Jay Hamilton (Neal McDonough), the no-good, bleach-blonde son of a local fat cat, someone who was never really part of the town and who only came back to party and profit. And so the stage is set for Chris Vaughn—returning war hero, native son and embodiment of all the town stands for—to go to war. 

Because, when you get right down to it, that’s what we’re here for. Back in 2004, no-one really expected Walking Tall to be much of a movie. It had a fairly ridiculous premise, and starred The Rock at a time when his acting cache was still low enough that he was going by his WWE moniker. He was supported by JackassJohnny Knoxville, a pop culture oddity who, 15 years later, Hollywood still occasionally returns to without ever entirely finding a place for. But we knew that The Rock was great at smashing things, and Knoxville was great at smashing into them, so we could hope for a pretty good time once the chair shots started. 

And there is a thrill in watching them take no shit, a contact buzz from the delight they take in tormenting the bad guys. They go off book and break all the rules, and we have a pretty good time watching them because, hey, those guys deserve it. They sell drugs to kids, remember?

But that’s where this particular thirst trap reveals the teeth beneath the bait. We’re lured in by the gleaming, hard bodies of The Rock and his truck, and also by the chance to flip the table on the bad guys who make us all feel weak. To see them scared and slapped around by someone as happy to break the rules as they are. It’s satisfying, but that kind of fetishization of authority should also be pretty troubling. 

Walking Tall envisages a world in which the sheriff can rampage through town with absolute impunity. It preaches security through state-sanctioned violence, promises that we can all feel safe if we agree to let a man with a big stick bludgeon whoever he likes. Anyone who has been paying any attention could tell you that when the police are encouraged to “crack down” in real life, the victims are usually not comic book bad guys hell bent on selling meth to school kids. 

In the scene described in the opening paragraph, Vaughn stops a driver on a deserted road, taking care to keep his weapon on show as he grimaces down at the unarmed civilian. After hassling him for a few tense minutes without cause, he tells him to get his tail light fixed. The driver has hardly got the words “What’s wrong with my tail lights?” out of his mouth before Vaughn’s club is exploding it into a million glittering pieces. We’ve heard this story a bunch of times before, except it’s almost never a rich white guy in the car. Later, when one of that rich guy’s goons is invasively patted down by Knoxville amidst a torrent of derogatory sexual jibes, we’ve heard that story too. Once again, the victim usually doesn’t look like that. 

The image of a police force unrestrained and fully able to wage war on those that frighten us has an immediate, powerful appeal. But, while we’re under that spell, it’s easy to lose sight of why those restraints were there in the first place. It’s important to remember how fine the line between a policed state and a police state can be. The difference between a cop and a criminal is that one is bound to a code preventing them from using their power in the service of petty grudges or personal gain. When we untie them from that code, we’re really just pledging our allegiance to a bigger, better-armed gang and hoping that they never have cause to turn on us. 

All told, Walking Tall is not a very good movie but it’s interesting for two reasons. One is the thematic thirst trap that it provides: the seemingly simple tale that harbors a vaguely fascistic love of police power. The second is the thirst trap within the thirst trap: The Rock. 

Or Dwayne Johnson, as he is known now. And his new incarnation marks more than just a name-change. Back then, he was a beloved wrestler with the makings of a movie star. Today, he is beloved across the board, scoring high in all demographics, uniting even the most drastically divergent tastes, in a way that no-one else is or does. As everything slides into more furious polarization, he remains an immovable object at the centre, politely refusing to be dragged to either side. At this moment in time, Dwayne Johnson probably the most popular human being in existence. 

I love him. I loved him when I was a kid, watching him lay suckers out with a Rock Bottom on WWE. Then I loved him in that semi-ironic way teenage boys do, championing his rise to movie stardom with (what I thought was) a knowing smirk. And I love his present-day status as the champion of hard work, humility, and excitement for life. I love that he seems to genuinely love everyone, and that he’s become one of the biggest stars on the planet because he’s so irresistible in this quest. I love his incessant gym talk and his song in Moana and the fact that he makes films with 60-foot gorillas. I love him, and so does everybody else. 

Which is absolutely crazy in the current pop cultural climate where we all agree on nothing and are generally pretty angry about it. Everything is divisive, and those divisions are rabidly defended. Superhero review scores provoke death threats and razor adverts become gender war battlegrounds. We can’t all agree to keep the planet inhabitable, yet somehow we all agree about Dwayne Johnson. He’s a universal, human, humanist thirst trap—irresistible because he trades in things we can all agree on. On respecting others and working hard and being grateful and having fun. But, like the “good guy with a club” narrative of Walking Tall, the universality and simplicity of that appeal can be dangerously intoxicating if we let it inform our decisions. 

Because Walking Tall’s worldview is fine so long as we don’t take it seriously. The film invents its own boogeymen so that the hero has someone to smack down without it weighing on his, or our, conscience. And that’s fine in an action film. But if we start to let that conception of the world filter into our reality, if we start to believe the fantasy, then we have real problems. Because in real life, there’s a real person on the business end of that two-by-four. 

Ever since Dwayne Johnson staked his claim as the one person in this world even Twitter can agree on (finding the exact date is a matter for greater Rock scholars, but it’s probably sometime shortly after his inauguration into the Fast & Furious franchise) there has been talk of what he will do with all that power. The idea of President Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson came up as a joke. And then a little more seriously. And then a fellow, far less unilaterally-beloved WWE Hall of Famer made his way into the White House, and the idea began to feel more “when” than “if.”

Like the story of club-swinging Chris Vaughn, Johnson’s tale threatens to unleash something pretty unpleasant if we take it too seriously. In his quest to keep the whole world in love with him, Johnson has kept his actual beliefs cloudy. Once a registered Republican, he is now named as an Independent. He has appeared at both Democratic and Republican national conventions to help get out the vote. He refused to endorse a candidate in 2016. He can sell Mayor Quimby’s “If you were running for Mayor, he’d vote for you!” line better than anyone else on earth, so obvious and unbridled is his enthusiasm for every person he comes into contact with, but beyond that it is very hard to know what he would stand for. And that’s a problem when you’re standing in the most powerful political office in the world.  

Fantasies are great because they refuse to obey the most basic law of economics: they are completely and absolutely free. All of us have exciting ideas lurking in the deep, dark recesses of our brains that would wreak havoc if pursued in real life. We don’t pursue them because, as much pleasure as they might give us, the cost would be too great. Fantasies allow us to indulge without hurting anyone. But once acted on, they become part of the world we all have to share, and that fundamental economic law comes back into play: someone, in some way, will have to pay. Ultimately, both President Dwayne Johnson and Walking Tall represent the kind of fantasy that only works as a fiction. The idea of President Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson delivering the most electrifying State of the Union address in history is exhilarating, but only if we imagine away all the people whose lives would be impacted by the real, practical implications of a politically-ambiguous celebrity president. In the end, the stakes are just too high to make the pleasure worth pain.