And yet, it’s based on a true American hero. It was a huge box-office hit in 1973, spawning two sequels, a TV series and 2004’s big-screen remake starring Dwayne Johnson that itself spawned two made-for-cable sequels with Kevin Sorbo.
So there had to be something to it, right? As Shout! Factory’s new Walking Tall: The Trilogy Blu-ray set of the first three films shows over and over again, bloody well right.
In the original film, Baker (Tomorrow Never Dies) stars as Pusser, who retires from the wrestling circuit to settle his wife and two kids in his hometown of McNairy County, Tenn. As son Mike (Leif Garrett, then not quite a teen heartthrob) puts it, “Grandpa, we’re getting a house that doesn’t move!”
The town, however, has changed in his absence. Pusser realizes this when a former football buddy takes him to a local watering hole, which now boasts prostitutes (including the devilishly sexy Brenda Benet, one-time wife of Bill Bixby) and them there gamblin’ games, and the corrupt authorities turn a blind eye. Pusser tries to demolish the place and gets the beating of his life — no wonder Crosby was attracted to the property — requiring 200 stitches.
One courtroom battle later, Pusser runs for sheriff and wins on a vow to clean up the town. Armed with a 4-foot hickory club that becomes his trademark, he and his deputies bust every every joint and moonshine distillery in the county, all with Pusser decked out in shirts the color of baby poo. Because this cuts off income for crime boss John Witter (Logan Ramsey, The Traveling Executioner), the sheriff is marked for death.
Baker’s built-in Texan ease makes him an obvious choice to play Pusser. He’s affable, yet can appear defiant. And he can pull off the dramatic heft when the script calls for it, such as the — spoiler alert, if you don’t know the real Pusser’s story — tragic end in which his wife (Elizabeth Hartman, The Beguiled) is shot to death as hired guns ambush Pusser’s car.
Thus, the movie ends on a markedly down note, which makes one of the box set’s vintage TV spots odd: the one depicting an applauding audience, including a few standing ovations. While I would not go that far, director Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential) made a well-crafted, if low-aimed, populist picture effective enough in audience catharsis and engagement to stand alongside fellow efforts of the era, such as Death Wish and Rolling Thunder.
It’s convenient that the redneck revenger ends with Baker’s face wrapped in enough bandages for a mummy movie, because in 1975’s Walking Tall Part II, Bo Svenson (The Inglorious Bastards) takes over the role for new director Earl Bellamy (Munster, Go Home!). Gifted a new club when he’s discharged from the hospital, Pusser is re-elected — naturally, since there “ain’t a roulette wheel or a working whore left in the county” — and he vows to hunt down the men who killed the missus.
Standing in his way are the whims of Witter, who keeps hiring people to kill Pusser. If he’s not ordering the sheriff’s car to be messed with, he’s sending in Angel Tompkins (Prime Cut) as a grad student to seduce him. (It’d work on me.) Strangely, Part II lets Angel bare her halos in clear, broad daylight, yet is the only entry in the franchise to get by with a PG.
Buford spends much of the movie intentionally abusing his authority, which is just the thing he abhorred in the original, but at least he has good reason, and this results in several great chase sequences. For me, Part II is the best of the bunch, primarily for Svenson’s good-ol’-boy presence. He’s more relatable and likable in the lead. Being 6-foot-6 also helps considerably in casting a larger-than-life shadow in a sequel that may follow a formula, but not the law of diminishing returns.
Its last lines leave room for another sequel as Pusser remembers Witter remains at large, yet tacks on the real-life police report of Pusser’s fatal automobile accident. In 1977, Final Chapter: Walking Tall squeezed its story in between, with Svenson reprising his lead role.
Set a year after his wife’s death, the take-it-or-leave-it Final Chapter finds Pusser angry that legalese prevents the authorities from touching Witter. It finds Pusser angry that Witter has set up a new cards-and-cooch club, Three Duces (misspelling theirs), just outside McNairy Country. And it finds Pusser angry that one of the hookers there is the lovely Luan (Margaret Blye, 1969’s The Italian Job), once his informant and potentially his next wife.
After Pusser narrowly misses re-election, the movie derails. Fresh out of conflict, Final Chapter goes meta, with Hollywood calling about turning Pusser’s life into a film titled Walking Tall. Just a few minutes later, it’s premiering in town. After attending a carnival, Pusser has the car crash that ended his life. At least in Part II, the news held some shock. Here, it’s fait accompli, wiped clean of suspense.
Aside from the aforementioned TV commercials, the set also includes trailers and a 30-minute tribute to Pusser featuring his real-life daughter and granddaughter, plus Garrett, Bruce Glover and others, with Baker represented only by voice. Conspicuously absent is Svenson. I would have liked an accompanying documentary on the trilogy itself, but will settle for having the trilogy in this otherwise stellar package. —Rod Lott