Sunday, December 1, 2013

11 Essential Paul Walker Movies

by Patrick Bromley
Paul Walker is gone.

If you had told me five years ago that I would be genuinely upset by the passing of Paul Walker, I would not have believed you. Yes, it's always sad when someone dies -- especially a healthy 40-year old man with a family and his life and career in front of him -- but I didn't have the attachment to Walker the movie star that I have developed in the last few years. I would have been sad because it's always sad when someone dies. Tonight I'm sad because it's Paul Walker who died.

Of course a lot of asshole commenters online are already making jokes about how it's ironic that a guy who made a name for himself in movies about driving fast died in a car. That's like Sylvester Stallone dying in a boxing match or one of those commenters dying while being a shithead on the internet. Fuck you, internet.

There has also been an outpouring of love and sadness from a lot of people who are bummed by the news, and it's a testament to how much Walker and the Fast & Furious movies have come to mean to us that so many people are in mourning right now. By all accounts, Walker was an incredibly nice and normal guy. You didn't read about him on gossip sites. He wasn't getting arrested or getting into fights. He kept his head down and did his work.

He also helped out. Walker was a magnanimous guy who traveled to Chile and Haiti in 2010 to help with earthquake relief. He was obsessed with ocean exploration and as involved in shark conservation efforts. When he was killed in a car accident today, he was participating in a charity event for Reach Out Worldwide, helping to raise money for victims of the recent hurricane in the Philippines.

I don't wish to rewrite history and suggest that Paul Walker was a brilliant actor when in fact he had limited range and was uneven on screen. But he was a good movie star and brought some very specific talents to the party, and those shouldn't be overlooked. In his too-brief career (not counting his days as a child actor on TV), Walker went from bland pretty boy to interesting leading man. He aged into his looks well and continued to improve as an actor. He leaves behind a body of work of which he can be proud and at least one series of films for which he will forever be remembered and beloved.

1. Pleasantville (1998) Those of us who didn't see Meet the Deedles -- and that's most of us -- first really became aware of Paul Walker after his supporting role in Gary Ross's 1998 fantasy. He plays Skip Martin, a clean-cut nice guy character on the fictional 1950s TV show into which Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon enter. Little is required of him in the movie except that he be handsome and sweet, and those are two things Walker was always good at. His reactions after Witherspoon manipulates him into fucking her -- thereby setting off a chain reaction of events that literally alters their universe -- are legitimately great. Watch the way he first notices the black and white world changing into color.
2. Varsity Blues (1999) Another supporting role that capitalizes on Walker's All-American handsome decency. As Lance Harbor, starting quarterback of the West Canaan Coyotes, Walker radiates charm. You don't need to know anything about the character (and you basically don't) to understand that he's the star of his high school.

3. She's All That (1999) - This one might actually be the biggest misstep in Walker's career. Once again playing a big shot high school jock (this time he bets Freddy Prinze Jr. that he can't transform anyone into the prom queen), the performance doesn't work primarily because Walker is playing the heel. It doesn't come naturally to him.
4. The Fast and the Furious (2001) - The series and the role for which Paul Walker will be remembered. It's basically just a remake of Point Break set in the world of street racing, with Walker playing (SPOILER) an undercover cop who falls in love with the subculture he's been assigned to infiltrate. Walker's best moment in the movie -- the one which forever endeared his character Brian O'Conner to me -- is when he loses a race (and a car) to Vin Diesel but is still smiling. Asked why, he just responds an amused "Dude, I almost had you!" That was Brian O'Conner: a guy who was happy just to almost win a race. Unlike co-star Diesel, Walker would continue with the series through the super entertaining sequel before bowing out for Tokyo Drift. He reunited with the rest of the cast for Fast & Furious and by then had become a more mature, more interesting actor -- the best thing about the fourth film and a leading man who was more than just a pretty face.

5. Joyride (2001) - A really underrated thriller directed by John Dahl (and written by J.J. Abrams) casts Walker and Steve Zahn as brothers who run afoul of a faceless trucker after a practical joke goes wrong. Not much is asked of Walker in the role save that he be decent, which came to him naturally as an actor. That's important in a film like this so that we understand the character is a good person who made a stupid mistake and not a cruel, condescending asshole. If he was just a cruel asshole, he wouldn't have our sympathy for the rest of the film. Walker has our sympathy.
6. Into the Blue (2005) - It's easy to see why Into the Blue was written off as paper-thin escapist nonsense: it's a movie consisting of beautiful scenery and beautiful actors in swimsuits. But this is also the start of Walker's "dark" period, in which his movies steered away from the teenage crowd and got really violent and crazy. Into the Blue is a crazy fucking movie. It starts with Walker and Jessica Alba frolicking around in the water and ends with people being harpooned in the chest and eaten by sharks.

7. Running Scared (2006) - Holy shit, have you guys seen Running Scared? Director Wayne Kramer's follow-up to The Cooler casts Walker waaay against type as a low-level thug working for the mob. I haven't seen the movie since the day it opened because it spun my head around (I turned to Mike when it ended and declared it was "too much movie"), but remember thinking that Walker's casting was inspired. The role robs him of many of the qualities for which he's best known, backing him into a corner and forcing him to act his way out through breathless desperation. He deserves credit not just for trying to stretch himself as an actor, but for also trying to pick more interesting projects. A regular Hollywood career could have come very easily, but Walker seemed keen on something a little different.
8. Eight Below (2006) - The same year, Walker went 180 degrees opposite Running Scared by headlining his own Disney family movie. Loosely based on actual events, the movie tells the story of guide at an Antarctica research based who must brave unthinkable conditions to get himself and a team of sled dogs home. It's as innocuous as it sounds, but proved that Walker could headline a movie that didn't have the words Fast or Furious in the title, eventually grossing $120 million worldwide. While this kind of movie has never been my bag, it's a good fit for Walker. He's an actor who's very good at projecting sincerity.

9. Flags of Our Fathers (2006) - Closing out a really interesting run of movies, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers (the American companion to Letters from Iwo Jima) casts Walker as an American soldier in WWII who first raises the flag at Iwo Jima but is incorrectly identified as someone else. Essentially playing a supporting character role, Walker's casting is very clever -- Eastwood uses the actor as a symbol more than anything else. Say what you want about Walker as an actor, but when a filmmaker can use his very casting as dramatic shorthand it says something about that actor's skill set.
10. The Death and Life of Bobby Z (aka Bobby Z) (2007) - Little-seen but decent crime thriller from John Herzfeld (15 Minutes) finds Walker as a clueless guy tricked into standing in for a drug dealer with a target on his back. He was still settling into his later-period screen persona and it shows here, but he's breezy and affable without coming off as a total lightweight. Though he had a reputation for seeming flaky as an actor, it's kind of fun to watch Paul Walker outsmart every character in a movie.

11. Fast Five (2011) - My affection for this franchise -- and this entry in particular -- is well-documented on this site, and I have long maintained that by the fourth and fifth films, Walker had become the secret weapon of the Fast & Furious series. He knew exactly what movies he was in, always coming off as relaxed and having a blast but being grounded and badass when called for. I can't imagine how the Fast & Furious team -- who really has become a family by now -- will cope with the loss of Walker. I know the franchise will continue without him, but it will never be the same.

Goodbye, Skip Martin. Goodbye, Lance Harbor. Goodbye, Brian O'Conner.

Dude, I almost had you.


  1. That was perfect, Patrick. Absolutely perfect.

  2. Thank you for writing this Patrick. Paul Walker definitely had an endearing quality (like a core player on your favorite team) and I'm happy the Fast and Furious franchise has become so well-regarded that his legacy will live on.

    Brian O'Connor: Pockets ain't empty, cuz.
    Roman Pearce: And we ain't hungry no more either, brah.

  3. Dude, you never had your car.

  4. The people who are only commenting on the irony of the situation are my least favorite people on the internet right now. Screw those people. This is tragic.

  5. I just heard the news. Since I haven't seen any of the "Fast & Furious" movies or cared much for Walker as an actor in the movies I've seen him in I can't say his death can affect as it does to fans of his work. But I was aware of him as an activist and that, unlike many of his co-stars, he never got into trouble or let fame go to his head. As a 40 year-old myself it also sucks to know that Paul was just having fun before going back to a family and daughter that will have to carry on without him, for this and many more Christmases to come.

    R.I.P. Paul Walker, family man and activist that didn't let fame go to his head. That's how I'll remember him.

  6. Thank you for this, Patrick. I've never seen Into the Blue, but I'll be seeking it out now. This piece is wonderfully heartfelt and honest, and could not have been easy to write. Thank you.

  7. Hell, I would never have remembered him in Pleasantville, but your description of that rose scene in the movie with his really good reaction is perfect. One of my favorite little moments in that movie.

  8. Running Scared is one of the most slept on films ans performances of all times. (I think it broke Glengarry Glenn Ross' record for most profane film ever btw) regardless, I never paid Paul Walker any mind until I saw that film. I was actually hesitant to watch it because of his previous work. After that - I couldn't wait to see what he was going to do next! He was that convincing and that great that I was like "holy shit, Whatever he does next, Paul Walker is about to blow our minds!." It saddens me that his film legacy leaves little to show of how talented this guy actually was.

  9. I just realized that with the exception of a football game I didn't watch ANY live TV this weekend and essentially stayed off the internet because you just broke this news to me - so sad. I was just bitten by the Fast and Furious bug last winter and I've since become a huge (non-ironic) Paul Walker fan - however blessed he may or may not have been when it came to acting skills, the love of and enthusiasm for whatever he was doing always came through on the screen - I will miss him a lot.

  10. Thanks entirely to this list, Patrick, I have seen and enjoyed both Into the Blue and Running Scared, the latter of which definitely could definitely support a podcast discussion, and will probably see the others some day. Cheers, hombre. :)