Based on the title, you might think this made-for-TV movie is about G.I. Joe but instead it’s about Buford Pusser, the club-wielding sheriff who battled bootleggers in Tennessee and who might have been murdered by them. While he was still alive, Pusser was played by Joe Don Baker in the original Walking Tall. After Pusser’s mysterious death, Bo Svenson took over the role for two sequels and a Walking Tall television series in 1981. Meanwhile, in A Real American Hero, the role is played by Brian Dennehy.
Though Pusser may be played by a different actor than in the original movies, A Real American Hero finds him still dealing with same threats. As a result of getting some bad moonshine at the Dixie Disco, two teenagers are dead and two are blind. Buford is determined to take down the owner of the Disco, Danny Boy Mitchell (Ken Howard). Unfortunately for Buford, Danny Boy has a mole in the sheriff’s department and always manages to clean up his club before Buford arrives. When Buford does arrest Danny, the case is thrown out of court because Buford didn’t have probable cause or any real evidence beyond hearsay.
Buford’s solution is to start enforcing every single law on the books, even the ones that haven’t been relevant for over a century. Buford knows that stopping Danny Boy for a misdemeanor would give him probable cause to search him for any evidence of smuggling moonshine. For instance, Buford pulls Danny Boy over because he’s driving a vehicle but, in violation of a law written in 1908, he doesn’t have a man walking in front of the car and waving a red flag. Another time, he gives Danny Boy a ticket because, in violation of a law from 1888, he never ties his carriage to a hitching post and a law written in 1910 legally defines all cars as being carriages.
The problem is that, if Buford only enforces the law against Danny Boy, he could be accused of police harassment. So, everyone in the country has to be held to the same standard, which means that everyone in town is soon getting ticketed and jailed for the minor offenses as Danny Boy and his associates. Everyone gets angry with Buford but, after Danny Boy tries to assassinate the sheriff while he’s got his kids in the car, they change their minds and support being overpoliced.
A Real American Hero was obviously an early attempt at a pilot for a Buford Pusser TV series. Bulky Brian Dennehy is physically right for Buford but he’s never as convincing a redneck as Joe Don Baker was in the role. Plus, it’s impossible to watch Dennehy hauling people into court for not hitching their “horseless carriages” without being reminded of Dennehy harassing Sylvester Stallone at the start of First Blood. Despite a subplot where Pusser tries to help a former prostitute re-enter society, Buford comes across more like a jerk than a real American hero. Meanwhile, Ken Howard does his best but Danny Boy is still just a generic television bad guy. If he wasn’t selling moonshine in Buford’s county, he’d probably be further down south, trying to frame the Duke boys for a bank robbery.
This one is for Walking Tall completists only.