Joe Don Baker plays Buford Pusser, a real-life high-school football hero/ex-Marine/professional wrestler who returns to his small Tennessee hometown to find that it has devolved into a seething cauldron of iniquity. It doesn't take long for Baker to run afoul of the new vice-lords and the corrupt police department, leading him to carve a big, big stick with which to beat up his enemies. While this gets him in trouble at first, it eventually leads to his election as sheriff. In that capacity, he takes on the bootleggers, fat-cats and nogoodniks, their civil rights be damned. The disclaimers placed at both the beginning and the end of this low-budget 1973 box-office smash, newly reissued by Rhino, read, "suggested by some events in the life of Buford Pusser." It would pretty much have to be "suggested" by real-life events, because the superheroics of the Pusser who appears in this film stop short only of flying. Through the course of Walking Tall, Baker is beaten up, shot, and mangled in a car accident, only to recuperate from each incident in time to place his hand-carved club where it will administer the most justice. Walking Tall is a sloppily made piece of south-of-the-Mason/Dixon-line gritsploitation, but it's not hard to see why it established a place for itself in '70s pop culture: On one hand, it's an ultraviolent revenge fantasy, and on the other hand, it's a masterpiece of over-the-top unintentional hilarity—with a clenched-toothed performance by Baker serving as its centerpiece. It's in the latter capacity that Walking Tall can be highly recommended as an unconscionably good time.
More from The A.V. Club