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A Look Back At Paul Walker: Running Scared and Eight Below

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

The star of the Fast and Furious franchise died over the weekend in a fiery car crash. Here’s a look back at two of his best performances.

Paul Walker’s never going to win any Oscars, but the guy’s a good actor. Yes, you read that right. I like Paul Walker. He’s a damn good actor. I know this because of his performance in two movies: Running Scared, Wayne Kramer’s recent crime caper, a stunner that mixes equal parts shattered concrete and the Brothers Grimm; and Eight Below, Disney’s earnest-to-a-virtue true-story flick about an Antarctic guide who goes to great lengths to rescue his stranded pack of sled dogs. 

Before I examine how these two movies brought the best out of Walker, let me explain why I thought he was only a doofus at first. No surprise here: The Fast and the Furious. There’s a lot to like in the Furious movie franchise — I discuss its commitment to multicultural casting in my review of the third Furious flick, Tokyo Drift — but Paul Walker’s performance in the first movie did nothing but make me bump Edward Burns from his perch atop my list of World’s Most Boring Actors. He plays a drony voiced, sun-blond, Southern California beach bum — but he’s a cop, too! Young and hungry! Maybe if Walker had only been playing a beach bum, he might have pulled a Keanu-Reeves-in-Parenthood, where his inherent doofiness fit the role, but as a young-and-hungry deep cover cop, Walker sorely lacked the grit and intelligence he needed to pull off such a role. This left us with the grim reality of the movie’s success and the inevitable appearance of Walker in more and more movies. Ugh. 

(Side note about Andrew Vachss: Both of these movies also share thematic DNA with the novels of crime author and children’s advocate Andrew Vachss. I’ll address that in this piece, but here concede that Vachss is hardly a household name.)

Needless to say, I never saw the kookily named 2 Fast 2 Furious, so I have no thoughts to offer on it. I didn’t see Walker again until Running Scared, in which he plays, of all things, a deep cover cop.  

But here’s the difference: In Running Scared, Walker plays an old man. I’m not saying he plays a senior citizen, buried under a mountain of aging makeup; I’m saying he plays a character who is old at heart. That, combined with his solidly rendered New Jersey accent, pulls a sad, striking performance out of him.  

At the same time, though, let me address this possible weakness in my argument: The movie’s pretty great, too, and it’s entirely possible that a well-made movie — a better movie than The Fast and the Furious — compensated for another lousy Walker performance. It’s entirely possible that I would have liked a deranged space monkey at the center of Kramer’s dark fairy tale.

I stand by my praise of Walker’s performance, however, because he is playing a part so seemingly unsuited for him. The lead actor in Running Scared, besides playing a deep-cover cop, needs to be able to convincingly play a deeply emotionally scarred father, husband — and a very curious breed of son.  

Case in point: Early in the movie, we see Walker at dinner with his wife, son and severely disabled father. His father, palsied and dazed with senility or Alzheimer’s, spills food from his mouth onto his lap — and Walker immediately starts yelling at him. The moment rings all kinds of weird bells, not the least of which is how Walker’s cruelty with his father contrasts with the brawny, roughhousing kindness with which he treats his wife and son.

As the movie progresses, though, one of its chief themes emerges: that abused children develop unlikely and deep familial bonds with each other. Later in the movie, while talking with a young runaway boy who shot his abusive father with a hot gun that Walker needs to secure, Walker tells him a story about another young kid (obviously referring to himself) with an abusive father:

“And when he was fourteen and strong enough, he took a baseball bat and Mark MacGuire’d the shit out of his old man. Hang in there, kid.”

Like I said: Walker is playing someone young in age but old at heart, and throughout the movie, Walker delivers in tricky, resonant scenes where he has to connect with a fellow abused child. This theme, combined with the flick’s grim, underbelly-urban setting, links it directly to the works of New York lawyer Andrew Vachss (rhymes with ax). A literal superhero, Vachss works by day as a children’s advocate lawyer, representing nothing but abused youth. By night he writes unrelentingly grim crime novels, including the acclaimed Burke series, whose antihero inhabits a phantom zone somewhere between private eye, mercenary, vigilante and shaman. I’m not saying that Vachss’ novels were on the cultural radars of Running Scared‘s makers, but they should be. The nondescript, bleak cityscape of Grimly bears a strong resemblance to Burke’s New York, yes, but more important, Vachss’ novels and Running Scared may not have been made for children, but they were both definitely made in tribute to children, and in tribute to the stunted, shattered and noble men and women that abused children can grow into.

ImageThey were also made, however, as a deadly warning to and about the monsters that some abused children metastasize into. Kramer and his creative team deliver this dire warning through a hectic, episodic, splintered crime narrative that plugs along like a backfiring GTO and employs a lot of the same flashy look and editing as Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s brilliant Sin City. Both movies take place in fictitious, uber-gritty Gotham Cities. Both movies enjoy wallowing in stylistic excess, hyper editing and super-violence. And both movies revereSin City reveres women, Running Scared children.

Reverence for children leads Paul Walker to deliver in another striking scene where, while being belted in the face with hockey pucks, he pleads with the aforementioned abusive-father-who-got-shot to not shoot his own son. “You’ll never be able to live with yourself!” he yells while bathed in the eerie blacklight that covers this entire scene and reinforces Kramer’s aim to make a modern-day Grimm fairy tale.

Disclosure: I’m yoinking the Grimm’s fairy tale analysis straight from Kramer’s mouth, via his commentary track on the DVD. While you’re retaining a lawyer to sue me for this, let me say that Kramer and his team populate the city of Grimly with a kind-hearted fairy godmother (a hooker with a heart of gold), and numerous ogres and evil monsters (mobsters, pimps and insane bums). The masterstroke, however, comes during the movie’s second act, when a child-molesting, serial-killing, snuff-movie-making couple kidnap the kid who shot his abusive father.

During this sequence, Kramer and his creative team delve into the deepest and darkest reaches of Grimm’s fairy tale imagery, directly emulating Hansel and Gretel, the Grimm’s classic cautionary tale against the danger of strangers.  

I’m treading on potentially annoying ground here. I’m sure most readers geeky enough to enjoy this site have encountered a self-satisfied lit major who stops the conversation to trumpet, “Ya know all those old fairy tales ain’t for kids, right? Ya know they’re really adult fairy tales, right?! I mean, the kid who sticks his finger in a dike — we all know what that’s about, right?! Haw!”

OK, the obnoxious literary wonk probably didn’t say the last line, but maybe you know what I’m getting at. I make this full disclosure, because I’m about to say:

You know all those old fairy tales weren’t for kids, right? You know they’re really adult fairy tales, right?

All right, I’m only half kidding, but I do want to stress that the Grimms didn’t fuck around, and that their tale of a witch who lives in a house of candy and cooks little children to eat translates beautifully and terribly into the curvy, colorful nightmare apartment that the snuff-molesting couple infest. No surprise: Their last name is Hansel.

God-damn this scene is good. Kramer drowns this scene in light, but the apartment’s twisty, colorful walls devour it and reflect back jaundiced rainbow tones. As he says on his commentary, the apartment is nothing but curves, with no corners to hide around or behind. The molesters often call out from behind fogged glass, their silhouettes emaciated, monstrous, stretched and sharp as spider-talons.

This sequence reaches a righteous head when Walker’s wife, played by Vera Farmiga, finally finds the kidnapped child bound with a bag strapped over his head and stuffed into a closet. While holding a gun on the evil couple, she revives the boy — and then executes the kidnappers.  

Although this choice removes the second act of Running Scared from its Grimm roots — an adult saves the day instead of childlike ingenuity — it moves it closer to the thematic superstructure of Vachss’ novels and, invariably, Eight Below: That it is our duty to honor our kin and children, and “our children” or “our kin” may very well not be our blood or our offspring. They might be a fellow abused child, and they might be our dogs.

A colleague of mine who rides horses and competes in rodeos once made the point of explaining that the horses he rides aren’t pets and they’re not property — they’re his family.

Eight Below understands that truth, as does Paul Walker, who approaches another tricky role with absolute sincerity. He calls his sled dogs his kids, and knows each of them and their personalities as distinctly as the most loving parent of a huge family.  

Walker not only plays another old-in-spirit character here, but he also plays another Vachss-ian character by playing someone who honors animals so deeply and purely. Walker slips into Fast and the Furious boring mode occasionally in the movie’s second act, when his character tries to secure funding to rescue his stranded dogs, but he shines in the scenes with his “kids” and in a scene where he visits the native American breeder who raised his kids. This scene, where Walker’s character visits a father/Shaman figure who tells him to “honor” his dogs, is right out of Andrew Vachss, who loves dogs with thermonuclear devotion.  

Most notably in Eight Below, Walker avoids histrionics in his performance. When he finally rescues his dogs, only to find five of them at first, Walker plainly says the line, “My five lucky stars. Almost perfect.” He says this line with a bittersweet smile, aware that this moment is right for celebration as well as grief.

Eight Below also deserves many kudos for its simple, straightforward story engine, solid writing, earnest performances and absolutely fantastic sequences with the dogs. Naturally, the human scenes in this movie pale next to the fresh, unique, quirky and rousing scenes with the dogs, who fight and forage together to survive for most of a winter in fucking Antarctica. Again, no surprise: They’re the real heroes of the movie. Disney used to make cool movies like this all the time. Does anyone remember Candleshoe? The Moon-Spinners? Escape from Witch Mountain? The Journey of Natty Gann? They’re great children’s movies because they tell great stories with integrity and earnestness. Disney needs to make more of these appealing pictures and less Shaggy Dogs and Santa Clauses

So, the moral of the story, kids, is that Paul Walker is a pretty damn good actor, and that he needs to play characters old at heart to find his voice. Running Scared and Eight Below show that Walker is starting to choose his projects better. He plays honorable fathers in both movies, one of which is an adult fairy tale, the other a kids’ movie that kicks a lot of ass.