"Final Chapter/Walking Tall," now at area theaters, promises a merciful end to at least one series of spinoffs from a hit movie. Perhaps it's fitting that "Final Chapter" should turn out to be almost devoutly derivative, virtually a feature-length memorial to "Walking Tall."
There had already been a sequel to "Walking Tall" - the cleverly titled "Part 2 Walking Tall," a routine crime melodrama in which Bo Svenson inherited the role of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, originally and far more impressively impersonated by Joe Don Baker. Svenson, who again stars in "Final Chapter," also inherited the role from the prototype: The producers were considering casting Pusser as himself in "Part 2" until he was killed in a car crash.
The originall film exploited aspects of Pusser's real life, which provided some remarkably dramatic, violent and tragic incidents. "Part 2" seemed to be conceived at the level of TV shows about invincible cops, so it's probably just as well that fate spared Pusser the indignity of undercutting his own legend by coming on like a poor man's Clint Eastwood or Telly Savalas. "Final Chapter" picks up the discarded biographical thread and may deserve some credit for stringing it out to an apparently irrevocable conclusion - the hero's death - but the process also proves dramatically thankless and anticlimactics.
The movie's abject dependence on its predecessors is established in the opening sequence, an abbreviated reenactment of the climax of "Walking Tall," in which Pusser drove into an ambush that cost him half his face and took his wife's life. Later there's a scene in a movie theater where the hero and his parents are shown reacting to the original film's depiction of this traumatic scene.
Indeed, the filmmakers try to sustain the picture on recurrences. The role of the roadhouse hooker played by Barbara Benet (and where is she these days?) in "Walking Tall" is now revived with Maggie Blye for two purposes - to reiterate the hero's devotion to his dead wife, also illustrated by two long, tearful scenes at her grave, and provoke him into destroying another den of iniquity, after Blye is tortured to death for having betrayed her friendship with the sheriff, Logan Ramsey, who portrayed a gangster adversary in the earlier films, returns to plot his revenge again. Playing it both ways, the filmmakers hint that he may have succeeded in causing Pusser's death after showing him being demoted by his own gangster bosses and warned to lay off.
The filmmakers seem loath to admit that these story elements have already been exploited and resolved. They keep invoking the conflict and grief that powered the original movie, but with diminishing justification and conviction. Even when they shift to something different, they can't resist sentimentalizing the hero in ways that undermine a potentially fresh approach.
Pusser is depicted as fading in popular esteem in McNairy County and even being voted out of office. Until salvation arrives in the form of a Hollywood producer, it looks as if the ex-sheriff may become one of the Hundred Neediest Cases. Supposedly rejected by the community he saved from depravity and too simple and trusting to look out for his own welfare, Pusser just seems to be growing moss before the movies come to his rescue.
It's difficult to tell if the filmmakers appreciate their own patronizing implications. It could be true that "Walking Tall" saved Pusser from declining into regional obscurity, and an interesting film could be built on that premise. However, there's no indication that "Final Chapter" was intended to be anything but reverent. If anything, the filmmakers go to slightly preposterous lengths to assert the hero's goodness by showing the shabby behavior of his community.
To cite the most shameless example, Pusser stops two vicious no-accounts from wrecking his car and beating him up, and we're supposed to swallow the idea that none of the hundreds of townspeople who have witnessed the episode will speak up for the injured party when the law arrives.
What purpose does it serve to pretend that his former constituents might want to see Pusser wronged? If this were true, it would raise some curious questions about his term of office. Embarrassed at their own expediency, the filmmakers shrug off this scene by suddenly bringing on someone willing to back up the hero. Lacking a protagonist, they have stooped to increasingly desperate measures for sustaining desperate measures for sustaining Pusser as a pop culture sacred cow. One trusts that "Final Chapter" has put him out to pasture once and for all.