The Fast & Furious series is one of the less likely franchises in modern Hollywood history. It needed Paul Walker. He was the linchpin, back at the beginning. The first film was conceived as a Walker star vehicle. This was back when he was the guy from Varsity Blues and She’s All That and The Skulls. The latter film, mostly forgotten nowadays, was directed by Rob Cohen – and it was Cohen who thought of Walker for a film that was originally titled Red Line, based partially on a Vibe article and at least a little bit on Point Break. It was possible to go into a movie theater in the summer of 2001 thinking that The Fast and the Furious was a Paul Walker movie. He was the blond blue-eyed star. He played Brian O’Conner, an undercover police officer. Of course, he broke bad. He couldn’t help himself. He met Vin Diesel.
Walker’s career was defined by the Fast & Furious films. He starred in five of them, and was not yet finished filming Fast 7 when he died. Even Walker’s non-Fast roles felt like O’Conner variations. Character arcs trended vehicular: the trucker-terror pulp gem Joy Ride (he drove a Chrysler), the manic thriller Running Scared (he drove a red convertible), the little-seen Vehicle 10 (he drove a rental car). If he wasn’t driving something, he was usually heisting somebody: in Takers, or in the underrated beach-bum thriller Into the Blue.
But if Walker had basically one defining role, that role was hardly static. In The Fast and the Furious, O’Conner is the picture of youthful turn-of-the-century cool-guy youth. For pure rock-god charisma, O’Conner can’t compete with Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto, who gets to throw out baritone-baroque wisdom grenades with every breath. “I live my life a quarter-mile at a time.” “It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning.” “You break her heart, I’ll break your neck!” This was testosterone camp. By comparison, Walker – with his ocean-blue eyes, his cover-model physique, his Boy-Band-Quiet-One hair – became a weird sort of everyguy.
That was true in 2 Fast 2 Furious, a hyperventilating cartoon parody of the first film. With Diesel gone, the second films retconned Tyrese Gibson as a childhood friend of O’Conner. Gibson gamely played Roman Pearce as a joke on cool-guyness, talking too much and generally floating above the candy-colored action. (“He did the Stare-and-Drive on you, didn’t he? He got that from me.”) Where the first film is almost goofily sincere, 2 Fast is a monument of self-awareness. But O’Conner defied deconstruction. Walker was steady, even genial. This is a movie that ends with the protagonist saving the day by flying a Camaro into a yacht. It needed somebody steady.
Part of the rarely remarked-upon pleasures of Hollywood’s new franchise era is seeing how the actors and characters mature together. When O’Conner returned in 2009’s Fast & Furious, Walker was older: hair trimmed, face stubbly, wearing a suit instead of baggy shorts. And the whole world had shifted around him. The fourth, fifth, and sixth Fast films take place in a world of steadily escalating hyperbole. The actors get bigger: See Vin Diesel and franchise annex Dwayne Johnson. The action gets bigger, too: Rio destroyed by a bank vault in Fast Five, the tank attack scene and the never-ending runway in Furious Six. But if anything, O’Conner becomes even more of an everyman as the films get crazier around him. His concerns are real-ish: A pregnant girlfriend, a captured wife, the urge to bring his son home.
In his career, Walker usually played the impeccable handsome straight man, the control group that wilder elements played off. This initially read as villainous: In She’s All That and The Skulls, he played a couple proto-Malfoy variations of Evil BMOC. But more often, he was the generous wingman: For Steve Zahn and Ted Levine’s voice in Joy Ride, for Scott Caan and Jessica Alba’s stomach in Into the Blue. In a fine supporting turn in Flags of Our Fathers, he’s a steady commanding officer; his early death lingers over the surviving soldiers, one of many heroes who didn’t make it home.
And in the Fast & Furious films, Walker played the ultimate wingman, a guy who always had everybody’s back. In some strange way, Walker just looked good driving a car. (He loved racing in real life.) And so the nature of his death will always complicate his role in a franchise built on car crashes. He had filmed much of Fast 7, but the movie will need to change without him – to say nothing of the potential and inevitable sequels, which now must carry on without Walker’s professional-at-work sturdiness. Brian O’Conner will be missed.