Remembering Paul Walker, an Everyman With Leading-Man Looks

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Well, it’s here. Furious 7, Paul Walker’s final Fast & the Furious movie, has arrived. It’s the last time we’ll see him in something new. It’s an odd feeling — Walker was not a particularly prolific actor, nor was he the kind of huge star who took up a lot of airtime when he didn’t have a new movie coming out. But for whatever reason, the loss, more than a year after his sudden death, still feels palpable. It’s just another reminder that there are some actors who may not make a huge impact on you at the time, but whom you realize you'll miss a lot when they're gone. Walker wasn't exactly regarded as one of the finer actors of his generation. But I always had a soft spot for the guy. He was immediately relatable, which is rare for an actor so good-looking.

In my review of Vehicle 19 — a not very good, glorified straight-to-video release from a couple of years ago — I wrote that Walker “understands his limitations: For the most part, he knows to always play the seemingly ordinary guy out of his element.” There was some snark in the way I positioned that – the first line of the review is, “Please hold your laughter, briefly, while I sing the praises of one Paul Walker” — but the feeling was genuine. Walker may not have had a ton of range, but he could do certain things very well. He actually was quite good at portraying desperation, as evidenced by the number of films he took on (like Vehicle 19) that involved him racing against the clock under extreme, frightening circumstances. 

Not long after Walker’s passing, another such film, Hours, was released, about a man stuck in a hospital with his newborn baby during Hurricane Katrina. Struggling to hand-crank a power generator to keep his daughter’s incubator going, Walker’s character has to battle looters, a power failure, and his own demons. But it’s the final shot of the film that destroys you: Having passed out, unable to keep his daughter’s incubator going, our hero is taken away on a stretcher. But just as the film fades out, he’s reunited with his baby, who has finally learned to breathe on her own, and he cries tears of joy. The scene would have been powerful before Walker’s death; after his death, it’s totally devastating.

Even when the films weren’t particularly great, Walker’s anxiety was often palpable. This is not a negligible skill. Desperation is something young, handsome actors aren’t always able to pull off. I’m not sure why; maybe it has to do with their self-consciousness, with the fact that so many of them seem so curiously uncomfortable in their own skin. But Walker had none of that. For all his good looks, he never seemed to be posing. He was always in the moment, and always seemed to have an instinct for what an average guy might actually do, how he might move and act, in these situations. So much so that I sometimes find myself re-casting certain other films with him. Would the terrible Johnny Depp vehicle Nick of Time have worked better with Walker’s brand of average-guy agitation? What about Paycheck, starring Walker instead of Ben Affleck? Or Runner Runner, with Walker instead of Justin Timberlake? These are all acclaimed, very good performers. And yet, I bet Walker could have trumped them all in these particular roles.

And let’s not forget that the guy made some great films, too. Joy Ride, the 2001 gearhead horror flick in which Walker and his ex-con brother Steve Zahn run afoul of a deranged trucker, is masterful, and it works in part because the actor is so good at just plain freaking out. His character gets it from all sides: the psycho trucker, the hillbillies he crosses at various rest stops, his shady brother who keeps macking on the girl he loves (played by Leelee Sobieski). At one point, the Psycho Mysterious Trucker calls Walker in his hotel room to tell him Zahn’s in the other hotel room trying to seduce Sobieski; so Walker has to run over there and both warn his companions that the bad guy is still out there and also confront his brother about the whole hitting-on-his-girl thing. He handles it the way any of us would: by totally losing it. And it’s glorious fun to watch.

Walker again plays someone surreally out of his element in Running Scared, Wayne Kramer’s hyper, underrated 2006 crime thriller that puts his character, a small-time hood, through the tortures of the damned: Over the course of a night, he has to face pimps, gangsters, cops, drug dealers, and pedophile serial killers. It’s a loony movie, and it’s rightfully gained cult status in the ensuing years. Again, it works because Walker keeps it grounded. His ordinariness sells the story’s ridiculousness. I know of few actors of any type who could make that film work; even fewer leading-man types who could do so.

Which brings us to the Fast & the Furious films, the series Walker will forever be known for, and whose seventh installment hits theaters today. This started off as Walker’s franchise: He was the hero of the first film, the undercover Keanu to Vin Diesel’s Swayze. And Diesel is nowhere to be found in the second film, 2 Fast 2 Furious, which has Walker teamed up with Tyrese Gibson; that’s generally regarded as the worst of the lot, but ask me in one of my more vulnerable moments to defend it, and I will.

As a whole, the series eventually arced towards Diesel and the Benetton-ad-like quality of the lead characters in the ensuing films. Depending on your point-of-view, you could read many things into this: Maybe Walker didn’t have the charisma to carry the whole show on his own? Or maybe this was an example of his much-discussed generosity, both as an actor and a person? But maybe, just maybe, it’s because, as the Average Joe at the heart of it all, he provided the perfect foil for the series’ flamboyant hot-rodders, the fast-talking outlaws and outsize tough guys? With Paul Walker there, everyone else could go big, brave, and a little ridiculous. To put it another way: Even the craziest sandwich needs some bread.

I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna miss the hell out of this guy. May he rest in peace.

A version of this piece ran on December 1, 2013.