Over the weekend actor Paul Walker, best known for his role in Universal’s ongoing “Fast and Furious” franchise, died tragically in a car accident in California. The actor was in the midst of filming the seventh film in the series, with every intention of continuing. As Bilge Ebiri pointed out over at Vulture, the series was originally designed as a vehicle for Walker, based on the actor’s experience working with original director Rob Cohen on the marginal collegiate thriller “The Skulls.” Even after his death it’s easy to be glib about his skills as an actor, but Walker turned in a handful of memorable performances both within and outside of the ‘Fast’ franchise.
Walker was handsome. This is an undeniable fact, as much as water is wet and the sky is blue. But he was more than that too, capable of nuance and shading in roles that usually required neither. And he left behind a small bounty of performances and films that are easily re-watchable and highly volatile. It seems like Hollywood never quite knew what to make of Paul Walker, and Paul Walker didn’t quite know what to make of Hollywood, and out of this, somehow, one of the biggest franchises in recent memory was formed.
But we wanted to take the opportunity to look back at five of Walker’s very best performances, films that we (and many others) will be revisiting following his tragic demise.
Most audiences got their first look at Walker in Gary Ross‘s whimsical comedic drama that starred Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as a pair of ultra-modern teens beamed magically into a stale ’50s-era sitcom. It was a perfect part for Walker: he played a goofy, amiable teen whose eyes are awoken by Witherspoon’s sexual know-how and intellectual curiosity. The role exhibited Walker’s aw-shucks charms and genuinely movie star-ish good looks but it also betrayed a steeliness underneath and a willingness to plumb even the simplest roles for dark undercurrents of sinister zeal. (This fearlessness would serve him well later in his career, which we will get to in just a moment). There’s something to be said about how Walker totally inhabited a role that, in the hands of a different, less gifted actor, would have otherwise been a two-dimensional cartoon. In a movie that was primarily filmed in black-and-white, Walker gave it lots of color.
“The Fast and the Furious” (2001)
This was it. Whether he liked it or not, Walker had somehow found himself anchoring a decade+ running franchise, which began with his “The Skulls” director Cohen making him a pitch for a movie that would kind of be like “Point Break,” except with really fast cars instead of surfing and skydiving. Ultimately, his growly, charismatic costar Vin Diesel would be more closely associated with the franchise, but Universal initially placed more emphasis on Walker. When Diesel balked at returning for the sequel, a second film was designed around Walker. And looking back on those initial movies, it’s easy to see why: yes, the handsomeness is there, as is the goofy, wide-eyed, “gee shucks” attitude that’s involved when any ordinary person enters a highly specific, somewhat otherworldly scenario like underground street racing. But there’s also a brittle kind of edge, apparent especially in “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Fast Five,” wherein Walker just seems annoyed to be there, stuck in a seemingly endless franchise he was totally unaware would require such longstanding commitment and time. If another actor carried a similar attitude, it would probably be off-putting, but with Walker it just added to the character’s charm. His Brian O’Conner went from being a lawman to a wanted outlaw, and Walker’s inherent wholesomeness made it seem like he was fighting that urge to go bad just as much as his character.
“Joy Ride” (2001)
In suspense wizard John Dahl‘s unfairly overlooked road games thriller, Walker plays a doofus bro who is driving across country with his troubled brother (Steve Zahn) and his super hot girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski). At some point, they enrage an unseen, truck-driving psychopath who calls himself Rusty Nail (the voice of Ted Levine), who comes after them with a furious vengeance. The movie itself, co-written and produced by J.J. Abrams, is a nifty riff on Steven Spielberg‘s “Duel,” and Walker does a bang up job as the straight man who is fighting for his life while also keeping a close eye on the way that his brother is cozying up to his girlfriend. Without Walker’s emotionally identifiable performance, the movie, which was taken apart and Frankenstein’d back together during a prolonged and tortured editing process, would have probably been unwatchable. But thanks to Walker, who makes the character believable, sympathetic, and also somewhat responsible for the mayhem that ensues, “Joy Ride” becomes a deeper and more complex experience altogether. Walker has always been an actor who audiences want to root for, and never before has this been more the case than in the sadly underseen “Joy Ride.”
“Running Scared” (2006)
Maybe the crowning achievement of Walker’s professional career, “Running Scared” is a balls-to-the-wall crime movie from director Wayne Kramer (who recently reteamed with Walker on the WTF-worthy “Pawn Shop Chronicles“), in which Walker plays a low-level leg breaker who comes up against corrupt cops, Russian mobsters, drug dealers, and some kind of weirdo pedophile serial killers (who also make snuff films… or something). Shot and edited with a reckless abandon usually reserved for the “Crank” movies or the ADD-addled YouTube videos of bored teenagers, Wayne dedicated the film (in the closing credits) to similarly outré genre legends Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill and Brian De Palma, and it’s a testament to Walker’s not inconsiderable abilities that he anchors the madness in some kind of emotional truth. Even though the entire movie takes place in some kind of phantasmagorical alternate universe, Walker makes you believe in it, somehow. Whether he’s banging his wife (Vera Farmiga) on top of the family washing machine or facing ingeniously devious torture on the ice of a local hockey rink, Walker makes the scenarios spring to vividly you-are-there life. While the movie bombed in its initial domestic run, it’s gained something of a cult following on home video (it was recently released in a wonderfully pristine new Blu-ray transfer that makes its luridness really shine) in the years since. Hopefully those who miss Walker and want to see more of him will pick up “Running Scared.” And have their fucking minds blown.
“Flags of Our Fathers” (2006)
There’s something profound in the fact that Walker co-starred in Clint Eastwood‘s rousing war epic as Sergeant Hank Hansen, a member of the United States Marines who was partially responsible for raising the flag at Iwo Jima but historically misidentified as Harlon Block, considering how overlooked and marginalized the actor was in real life. As Hansen, Walker gets to exhibit his old-fashioned American earnestness (often misidentified as a strain of robotic woodenness) in both his characterization and in his interaction with the other members of his squad (amongst them Jamie Bell and Barry Pepper). Walker was an actor who was almost painfully aware of what his strengths were and often tried to act against them. This partially explains why he would take roles in such explicitly grungy fare as “Running Scared” and follow it up with such squeaky clean, for-god-and-country material as “Flags of Our Fathers.” (In the same year, he would also star in Disney‘s “Eight Below,” a sunny dogsled racing drama.) With “Flags of Our Fathers,” he was embracing that handsome movie star quality that he was often railing against, but wasn’t afraid to give the character some depth and complexity, something that Walker was, no matter the role or movie, always able to provide.
Walker also provided beloved performances in two movies that have somehow become modern cult classics—teen comedy “She’s All That” and “Varsity Blues,” a kind of rowdier, prototypical “Friday Night Lights.” Sadly, we’ve never seen either film, but we hope to very soon. He was also the best part of the leaden Michael Crichton adaptation “Timeline.” And if you just need a straight shot of Walker-is-super-handsome goodness, then check out “Into the Blue.” It’s a muddled thriller about buried treasure (or something), like if “Romancing the Stone” took itself very seriously, but Walker spends much of the movie shirtless, causing the dozens of women who actually paid money to see the movie to openly swoon.