Paul Walker has been described as a guy who had one leg in and the other leg out of show business. Someone to whom acting was more a means to an end than his one and true passion. Therefore, it's quite fitting that apart from his iconic portrayal of Brian O'Conner in the Fast and Furious franchise, he does seem to remembered more for the many great roles he had off-screen, like the founder of Reach Out Worldwide, car lover and a professional racer, nature enthusiast, martial arts practitioner or—from what I've read—an all around decent bloke.
However, as one dives into his on screen roles, you can find that there's also a genuinely fascinating actor lurking underneath. One who maybe wasn't a shapeshifting chameleon, but who nevertheless turned in some great and often underrated performances. So, I figured I'd celebrate six of them. Let's get right into it.
6. Vehicle 19 (2013): Michael Woods
Kicking things off is this little thriller about an ex-con named Michael, who becomes a target of a massive police manhunt in South Africa after inadvertently picking up a rental car with a whistleblower tied up in the trunk. Now, while not exactly a flawless flick by any merit, it does offer us a fine display of one of Walker's defining strengths as an actor: his innate ability to carry movies with minimalist setup.
Shot almost exclusively from within a single car, these types of films can often be the best measure of an actor's or actress' mettle, as we're literally stuck with this person for the entire time. So, in other words, fail to deliver even for a second and the entire thing falls flat. And, well, Walker certainly delivers here, as he perfectly sells the intensity of the situation without ever verging into overacting and—crucially—even managing to add a fair bit of dimension to what is otherwise a pretty vaguely characterized protagonist.
5. Eight Below (2006): Jerry Shepard
Now, in a sense, there's not too much to point out here about Walker's performance in this well-executed survival flick about eight sled dogs left on their own to endure Antarctica's winter due to some unfortunate circumstances. In fact, one could argue that Walker—assuming the role of the trainer/owner of the these dogs—is actually a mere supporting character for his four-legged costars.
Yet, the reason why this performance makes the list, is simply because of the sincerity within it. Maybe it's because that—judging by some his real life ventures—it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine that working as a guide at a research base situated in Antarctica is something the guy would have actually tried. Or, perhaps it's simply that he always seemed to work well with animals on screen. Whatever's the case, this role's a great fit and it's very easy to buy him as this worried dog owner trying to do everything possible to save his eight friends.
4. Joy Ride (2001): Lewis Thomas
Before entering the top three, let's take a little joy ride with this 2001 underrated little thriller. Telling a story of a college freshman Lewis and his troublemaker brother Fuller (Steve Zahn) embarking on a cross-country road trip to pick up Lewis' crush Venna (Leelee Sobieski), it quickly takes a dark turn when the two decide to play a cruel prank on a lonely trucker by messing around on the CB radio frequency. Sure enough, the trucker (who just so happens to be a high functioning psychopath) doesn't take it particularly well and the chase begins.
Now, while a movie about a bunch of young people being chased by a faceless killer isn't exactly anything new (especially during the early 00s), it is one of the better examples of that little sub genre. The three young leads are all well matched, editing is suspenseful and there are some truly great scenes scattered across this chase. As for Walker specifically, it's simply one of his more loose and at ease performances, where he displays some great comedic timing. Adding to that is also the way how effortlessly he turns it up a notch, when the fun becomes fear.
3. Fast & Furious (2009): Brian O'Conner
Yeah, you knew that Bri was gonna be on this list. I mean how could he not. He's the character Walker not only made his own but also one he made iconic (and vice versa). Now, while he was consistently great in the role during his six-film tenure, it's his third stab at it that shines the brightest. You see, while the film itself is arguably the least ambitious entry in the franchise in terms of scope and spectacle, it is the most character-driven. And, well, Walker did get the most to chew on here, as the beloved original cast was reunited.
Displaying a strong sense of ownership he had over the character by that point, Walker's great here both in terms of the physical side of the performance as well as how he simultaneously revisits and builds on the unresolved character conflicts from the first film. Indeed, whether it be Brian's conflict of loyalties, struggle with his own sense of self worth or his growing affection towards Dom and Mia (Vin Diesel and Jordanna Brewster), it's just a genuinely great piece of character study in the middle of this Fast franchise.
More importantly, however, it also remains a great example on what Walker could do when actually given a proper time and space to explore a character. Something, he unfortunately didn't get to do all that often.
2. Running Scared (2006): Joey Gazelle
Onto a performance that on many accounts really should have been number one on this list. And, well, while we'll get to the reason why it quite isn't soon, lets just make it very clear: This is one hell of a performance!
A modern take on the ultra gritty thrillers of the 70s, here is a story of a small time thug named Joey, who's tasked with getting rid of some incriminating guns following a shoot out. One gun however falls into the possession of his son's friend Oleg (Cameron Bright), who ends up shooting his deadbeat stepfather with it, running away and setting up one hell of a frantic evening for everyone involved.
Now, what it effectively means is that this film lives or dies by whether it can immerse you into this frantic situation along with the characters. That, in turn, leads us to Walker's performance. Simply put, it literally embodies the hectic and nervous tone of the film to a T. Here is a guy on a wild goose chase round the dark streets of New Jersey, not even 100 percent certain whether catching that "goose" will do him any good (or his chances of living through that night). You feel his tension, you feel the confusion, and you want to get through it with him.
Now, granted, that had it been a more conventional take on the thriller genre, this performance would have probably verged on overacting. Yet, from editing to the overall tone, Running Scared is purposefully as relentless as possible and so is Walker in what is easily the most intense performance he ever gave.
1. Hours (2013): Nolan Hayes
So, why is Hours number one? Well, because within this story of a new father left alone in an hospital to tend for his prematurely born daughter while the rest of the building is evacuated due to Hurricane Katrina is everything that made Paul Walker the actor special... and then some.
First, of there's this above-discussed ability to carry a minimalist setup, as most of the film is literally just him talking to prematurely born baby on a ventilator (granted, a dog also joins the party later). And yet, owing to the warmth and emotion he brings to these beautiful albeit rather one-sided conversations, where Nolan reminisces about his late wife who died on childbirth ( Genesis Rodriguez), it's never boring.
Of course, just to ensure that it's as far away from boring as possible, there's also a little Hitchcockian ticking clock dynamic going on here in form of a hand-cranked generator, which Nolan has to manually crank in every three minutes to charge his daughters ventilator battery. So, in other words, every trip he makes outside of that room (whether it be to look for supplies or help), must be done within three minutes. That, in turn, creates a properly tense atmosphere with Walker once again perfectly conveying the intensity of the situation without overacting it.
However, what truly makes it stand apart, is the singular commitment he had for bringing this film to life. A true passion project both in terms of the story as well as its setting, it was Walker's conscious effort to take his acting career to a next level and it really shows.
In fact, all the scenes were shot in sequence during what was an extremely short and intense filming period. Therefore, as Nolan was doing his soul-searching while getting physically more and more drained, so was Walker. As the guy himself said in one of his final interviews: "At the end, when Nolan wins, I won." And, well, we did too as we got to see what this often underrated actor was truly capable off.
About the Creator
So, to put it simply (and slightly cheesily) I'm fascinated with life. And, well, writing about films, TV shows, video games, music, travelling, philosophy and Formula 1 among other is a fun way to explore it.