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.