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Exactly how good does Sheriff Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) and his "Hixploitation" classic Walking Tall look and sound in high-def....?
Shout! Factory / 347 Minutes / 1973-1977 / Rated R / Street Date: May 15, 2012
Here's a new one. Ever hear of "Hixploitation?" I never did, either. A strange amalgam of four disreputable genres - think Death Wish meets Straw Dogs meets Deliverance meets every blaxploitation movie ever made - Walking Tall is a movie that could only have been made in the 70s. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but hardly guarantees a good movie. Case in point: after sitting through nearly six hours of the adventures of "legendary" Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, I can only say I hope the ornery ol' bastard doesn't make a comeback.
The first Walking Tall made quite a stir back in 1973, gleefully exploiting geographic tensions, gratuitous retribution violence and neo-libertarian ideals of one-man-band lawfulness. It's dumb, it's simplistic, it's morally suspect, and it made lots of money. It also spawned two sequels, and today Buford rivals Billy Jack as the most well-known poor man's version of Dirty Harry. But instead of a Magnum, Pusser carries a really big baseball bat. Yes, it's ridiculous.
Our saga begins: Moving into a sleepy hick town with his wife and two kids, Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) only dreams of an idyllic life sitting on the porch with the misses, drinking lemonade and shooting guns with his son. But a quick pit stop to the local trailer park brothel (no joke) results in an ugly brawl, leaving Buford scarred but ready to wage war. Winning his court case against his attackers, he soon discovers a redneck mafia runs the town and most of its illicit businesses, so Buford runs for sheriff and vows to cleanup Podunk, USA. (What does it matter that the previous sheriff has to get wiped out in the process?) With his new deputy in tow and eight men dead in a moonshine bootlegging ring, it's gonna be one bloody battle to the death.
With the first film a big hit, a sequel was inevitable. Churned out quickly in 1975, here we get a new Buford. Despite most of the supporting cast returning (watch for a young Leif Garrett!), Baker sat out the rest of the trilogy, with Bo Svenson stepping in as Pusser. Unlike most sequels, however, the plot makes an attempt to continue the story, not merely remake it. (Warning, spoiler alert!) With his wife killed off in the first installment, it's revenge time, Buford-style. Still on the trail of the evil moonshiners, the mob orders two hitmen, and the cat and mouse is predictably intertwined with lots of car chases, fist fights and bloodshed. Woo-hoo!
While the sequel was not as big of a hit as the first film, it was enough of a success to inspire The Final Chapter in 1979. Svenson's back as Buford, who's now just about nuttier than a fruitcake. He's still so distraught over his wife's death (despite trying to bed a local prostitute) that he starts blowing lots of shit up real good. But when the town votes him out of office for going too far, it's a one-man war all over again. What's a well-meaning sheriff to do? And where's chief Brody when you need him?
For a white-bred city boy like me, these type of flicks require some adjustment. I have to admit it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for a bunch of stupid people beating each other up. So the Walking Tall movies, especially the first one, work best as social allegories, valuable snapshots of an era long ago destroyed. The violence borders on the pornographic, yet the whole thing has a strange air of innocence. The racial banter is refreshing in it's lack of political correctness even if it is often cringe-inducing, and the rotating door of directors - Phil Karlson, Earl Bellamy and Jack Starrett - bring an authentic feel to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, the sequels suffer from the law of diminishing returns. While Svenson delivers a solid performance, he's no match for Baker's innate belief in the nobility of the character, which is required to make it palatable. And by the time of The Final Chapter, the franchise already seemed like a relic. Blaxploitation was on the wane and white audiences were groovy to the escapist thrills of Star Wars. But go back to the first movie, and it's worth checking out for a glimpse at what was charging the pulse of the nation.
Not a great set of movies, but interesting sociopolitical documents.