by Patrick Bromley
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.