Even for formulaic TV crime drama, it's below average.

James Plath's picture

I doubt that this was what Teddy Roosevelt had in mind when he said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." But real-life Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser had a habit of carrying a baseball bat and whacking the snot out of things he even remotely suspected of being illegal. The legendary lawman inspired a 1973 movie that was a critical bust and a box-office success. In it, Joe Don Baker played the fiery Pusser. For the sequel, the real Pusser signed a contract to play himself, but before the ink was hardly dry he was killed in a suspicious car accident. Enter Bo Svenson ("Kill Bill Vol. 2"), who played Pusser in "Part 2: Walking Tall" (1975) and "Final Chapter: Walking Tall" (1977), two films that were far inferior to the initial one, which was average at best.

But somebody at NBC thought "Walking Tall" could make it as a series, and Svenson was asked to reprise his role. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an ugly way for the Pusser legend to end. The show took a beating in the ratings on Saturday nights and was yanked in February, then tried on Tuesday late-nights and back to Saturday late-nights before the network bosses finally admitted it was a no-go. Only seven episodes were produced, and all seven are included here on two discs, for a total run-time of 340 minutes:

1) "The Killing of McNeal County's Children"—Sheriff Pusser ups his batting average when he goes after a big supplier of a chemical needed for the home manufacture of PCP, or "angel dust." And he gets even meaner when his son becomes a victim.

2) "The Protectors of the People"—When racial tensions are stirred up by white supremacists, Pusser ends up being caught in the middle, and a friend's life is endangered. Veteran TV character actor William Windom guests.

3) "Kidnapped"—Pusser's father is kidnapped and held for a hostage exchange after Pusser jails the head of an outlaw family.

4) "The Hitman"—Organized crime gets Pusser's attention, then he gets theirs and a hit man comes to town. With the man's identity uncertain, Pusser thinks it could even be a friend.

5) "Company Town"—A miner disappears in Big Jim Clausen's company town, and Pusser investigates.

6) "Deadly Impact"—An old fishing pal and girlfriend are murdered, and it's up to Pusser to track down he killers and exact revenge. He suspects industrial polluters.

7) "The Fire Within"—A priest jeopardizes his life when he won't reveal details of an attempted murder and gunrunning operation which he learned during confession. James MacArthur guests.

There are moments when the show feels a bit like an updated macho version of "The Andy Griffith Show." Like Andy Taylor, Pusser is a sheriff who also happens to be a widower raising a son (and, in Pusser's case, a daughter as well). And of course there are times when the son is both proud of his father and made the subject of peer ridicule because of him. Instead of Aunt Bee helping around the house we get an equally Weeble-built Grandpa Carl Pusser (Walter Barnes), who goes for the folksy Wilfred Brimley routine but comes up way short. Other times, it feels a bit like a southern version of Walton's Mountain, with kids sitting around on porches acting like they're caught in a netherworld between an idyllic past and a drug- and crime-filled present. And even Pusser's hefty chunk of lumber (it's not a baseball bat in the series, but a sawed-off fence pole) isn't big enough to overcome the series' weaknesses and inconsistencies.

Michael Pusser is played by Rad Daly, who could pass for any number of curly mop-haired young actors in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Rounding out the cast were Heather McAdams as daughter Dwana, and Harold Sylvester, Jeff Lester, and Courtney Pledger as the token white, black, and woman deputies: Fairfax, Spooner, and Litton.

The main problem with "Walking Tall" is that you could knock it over with a pencil, it's so cardboard. The plots are standard, the good vs. evil confrontations are simplistically reductive, and the acting is so hokey it isn't even close to being evocative. Then there's the matter of logic. In the season opener, Pusser comes across a barrel of a chemical labeled "hazardous," and forces the owner to dump it into a dumpster. Hazardous materials! Later, he stops a semi-truck and tips over and whacks a good 20 more barrels onto the road, then drives off with his deputy. I realize this is a law and order show instead of an environmental one, but how believable is this? By the same token, one of the kids at the local high school smokes a PCP-sprayed cigarette and goes so crazy that his mind isn't even right by the end of the show. Meanwhile, the sheriff's son drinks down an entire packet of angel dust and within a few days he's back to his smiling lucid self. Inconsistencies and logical lapses can be found in every episode.

There's an audience for this type of show, but I'm not a card-carrying member. Even for formulaic TV crime drama, it's below average.

Video: The video is actually pretty good for a film of this era, with only slight graininess and colors that have faded only a little.

Audio: The audio seems to be a standard Dolby digital 2.0 Mono, and the quality is decent.

Extras: Mercifully, there are no extras.

Bottom Line: "Walking Tall" is the latest in a line of failed TV shows that studios are releasing on DVD—rolling the dice to see if they can get lucky. "Walking Tall" may have appeal and it may sell, but critically speaking, it comes up snake-eyes.


Film Value