Monday, December 2, 2013

Paul Walker Retrospective

So I’ve decided that when an actor, actress or filmmaker dies whose work meant something to me dies I’d like to take a few minutes to look back on his or her career.  Here are a few thoughts on my little sister’s first crush: Paul Walker.

The first things anyone would have to notice about Paul Walker are his All American good looks: the striking blue eyes, strong jawline and fit physique.  Filmmakers caught on quickly casting Walker as, basically, an attractive and blandly likable guy in Pleasantville and Varsity Blues.  Quickly those good looks were given a slightly sinister, more manipulative turn in She’s All That and The Skulls.  It’s faint praise to say Walker was the best part of the execrable The Skulls, but it’s also true.  He’s a far more magnetic screen presence than star Joshua Jackson and holds his own with solid character actors like Craig T. Nelson.

The Skulls’ director Rob Cohen evidently agreed because when Universal gave him the keys to a new car racing thriller, Cohen selected Paul Walker as his leading man.  Walker reportedly beat out Christian Bale for the role (Bale went on to star in the post-apocalyptic dragon thriller Reign of Fire before breaking out as a ‘serious actor’ with The Machinist).  Despite stealing a title from a long forgotten Roger Corman schlockfest that literally made audiences laugh at the movie’s preview, The Fast and the Furious was an immediate hit.  Marketed heavily to urban and minority audiences, Fast was, at the time, the most financially successful movie ever about cars, out-grossing its budget on opening weekend.  There’s something both magically dumb and lovable about the first Fast.  Maybe it’s the fact that the entire cast treats lines like “Ask any racer, any real racer.  It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile.  Winning’s winning.” or “I owe you a ten second car…” as though they were penned by Shakespeare, maybe it’s the fact that it shone a light on an interesting subculture element (car tuning and street racing), maybe it’s that both Walker and Diesil are believable action heroes or maybe it’s the fact that the CGI-free action scenes were damn exciting, but The Fast and the Furious achieves its (admittedly modest) goals about as well as any movie can.  While Vin Diesil was the break-out star of The Fast and the Furious, Paul Walker was the film’s solid, relatable emotional core.

In the wake of Fast’s success, Walker was hot-shotted to movie stardom with some truly awful results.  After Diesil left the Fast series, Walker was the lead in the awful Fast sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious.  The film is a muddled mess of CGI nonsense.  Most disappointingly, new director John Singleton (Boyz in the Hood, Shaft) completely fails to grasp the first film’s core value: outsiders coming together to form a sort of off-kilter family.  Instead, Tyrese and Ludacris chew the scenery with asinine catch phrases and Fast’s Jordana Brewster is thrown aside for Eva Mendes’ new sexpot love interest.  Despite deservedly awful reviews, 2 Fast had a huge opening weekend (though a lower overall gross than the first Fast signifying audience displeasure) and Walker’s ‘star turns’ continued.  His next two films, Timeline and Into the Blue, were awful movies savaged by critics and forgotten at the box office.  These failures seemed to lead Walker to make a real change in the roles he selected.

In 2006, Walker moved on from the seemingly declining Fast series and took three roles radically different from any audiences had seen from him before: Running Scared, Eight Below and Flags of Our Fathers.  Running Scared is, to most observers, Walker’s best performance as a low level mob thug trying to recover a missing handgun through a bizarre, dark and hyperreal real world fairy tale.  It’s a gritty and magnetic performance in a strange little movie.  Eight Below sees Walker as the lead in an old-fashioned Disney animal adventure story about eight sled dogs trapped for the winter in Antarctica.  Walker shows his trademark lovable charm, but also a good deal of range, in wrangling to get support to get his dogs in Antarctica.  Despite the hokey trailers and Disney family production goals, the film is rather touching and far better than the material would suggest.  Perhaps most interesting is Walker’s role in Flags of Our Fathers.  Walker tried out for the film like any working actor and was offered a very small role with a very small paycheck.  Much to Warner Bros’ surprise, Walker happily accepted a bit part in a movie far more ‘important’ than his usual oeuvre.  Walker followed with two artistically interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful, indie dramas: The Death and Life of Bobby Z and The Lazarus Project.

Over the last few years, Walker has been tied up with the immensely likable Fast sequels.  The success of Fast’s resurrection is a direct result of audience’s fond memories of the first film.  Fast & Furious’ tagline was ‘New Model, Original Parts’ in reference to all the returning stars.  The series has grown in both budget and scope while adding numerous stars to the mix, but throughout six movies Walker and Diesil have been the series’ heart and soul.  Walker had continued to mix up his non-Fast films as well including a reunion with Running Scared director Wayne Kramer for Pawn Shop Chronicles and the upcoming well-received Katrina movie, Hours, about a man trying to take care of his infant daughter in the storm’s aftermath.

It is a shame as a film fan to lose Paul Walker as he seems to be finding a real comfort level in how to maximize his talent.  As a handsome, credible man of action, Walker could’ve have had a great opportunity to age into a sort of modern day Steve McQueen.  While his talent and range have limits, it’s very difficult to find a leading man that most filmgoers will happily buy as a man of action.  Squint and it’s not hard to see a still handsome 63 year old Paul Walker eeking out a Best Actor nomination for his role as a disillusioned cop finding purpose in one last case.  By literally ever single account, Paul Walker was a great guy in real life.  He died after spending his Fast Seven holiday shooting hiatus at a charity event for typhoon victims.  What I hadn’t realized is that Walker was a hands-on philanthropist personally traveling around the world to help where tragedy struck including relief trips to Chile and Haiti in the wake of earthquakes; he was also an avid supporter of marine biological education and science.  RIP.