Paul Walker, Genesis Rodriguez, Nancy Nave, Shane Jacobsen
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 13 Dec 2013 (General release); 2013)
The recent death of Fast and Furious star Paul Walker in a car accident guaranteed several slightly uncomfortable realities. First, whatever happened to the already in production seventh installment of the franchise would be watched more closely than, perhaps, it should be, the social media screeds and suggestions arriving more quickly and chaotically than the action scenes in said series. It also produced the kind of complex industry handwringing that only a desperate, eager for attention media seems to mandate, and it has drawn unnecessary focus on a film left in his yet to be released creative canon, if it ever is. Such is the situation with Hours, a decent if slightly derivative thriller that pits the late actor against one of nature’s most devastating furies - a hurricane, in this case, the horrific Hurricane Katrina - and one of biology’s most tricky assignments - a newborn baby.
Walker is Nolan Hayes, a man rushing his pregnant wife (Genesis Rodriguez) to a downtown New Orleans hospital. She is about to give birth, and there are warnings of a massive storm coming. As Katrina picks up steam, Nolan discovers that his spouse did not survive the procedure, that his newborn child has underdeveloped lungs and needs to be on a respirator for 48 hours, and that the mother of all monsoons is about to turn NOLA into a No Man’s Land. During the eventual evacuation, he is assured that there is enough power to keep the machines going and that, sooner or later, he and his daughter will be rescued. Of course, the power dies, there’s no one left to help, and Nolan must hand crank a generator in order to keep his kid breathing. To make matters worse, the levies have broken, and with the city under water, it looks like the criminal element and the mandates of survival will trump our hero’s - and his baby’s - chances of making it.
That’s it. One man. One infant. One horrific scenario that must be maintained and manipulated over the course of 97 minutes. While writer/ director Eric Heisserer (whose current claim to fame is reimagining A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing for their recent revamps) does offer up the occasional ancillary character and happily married flashback, this is almost all Walker, all the time. Constantly talking to his infant daughter about his life both good and bad, Hours is an exercise in grief management that the otherwise stoic actor seems to excel at. There are moments of heartbreaking beauty here. There are also times when all you want to do is find the nearest National Guardsman and airlift this exhausted man and his kid to safety.
Hiesserer seems to have sold this film on its premise, rather than its promise or process. Equally, he has the unfortunate luck of catching his star both at the peak of his popularity (the Fast and Furious films are now a Summer tentpole juggernaut) and at the height of a sad notoriety. Audiences may be expecting too much here, and luckily, Walker can deliver. While acting alongside someone like Vin Diesel is the thespian equivalent of shooting fish in a see-through barrel, few have found the late actor trading on his obvious talents. Here, he does, delivering moments that will melt your cynical soul while also exploring the standard action man dynamic. There’s a good deal of suspense as well as that rarified feeling of finding an offbeat gem. From a standard cinematic structure, the final result is scattered and a tad unfulfilling. From a personal perspective, Walker makes it work.
There might be a bit of blowback over the way Katrina is handled here. There isn’t any political or philosophical agenda involved, just the use of the destructive storm as a kind of plot mechanism. We need to keep Nolan (Nolan? NOLA? Nolan? NOLA?) more or less locked down, limited in his options, and constantly looking out for his baby’s well-being. In some perverse way, the narrative is reminiscent of the Crank films, where Jason Statham must find ways to stay awake/jumpstart his dying machine heart in order to stay vertical. There is desperation in the design, but we never really feel that Hiesserer will let the baby die. It’s the intensity by which Walker believes it (and then expresses it to us) that sells the situation…and the stunning finale.
In fact, the director shows some real skill here. He creates mood out of nothing more than empty office spaces and leftover remnants of previous patients. There’s a claustrophobic sense of being trapped that is hard to defuse and a nice use of suggestion where spectacle would have otherwise ruled. Since he is only working with Walker (Ms. Rodriguez does appear from time to time but she’s lacking in any real depth or substance), we can’t tell how well he plays with performers and with our hero working overtime to succeed in his easily identifiable goal, we root for him automatically. For his part, Walker wins us over in both the mechanics and the meaning of what he is attempting. With his wife dead and his daughter dying, this is man about to be overwhelmed by tragedy. In his grief, however, he finds a new will to go on, and a new purpose to push him ahead.
Hours ends up being a fitting tribute to a man who, for many years, was seen as failing to live up to his full potential. Here, he harnesses his dashing good looks to make us care for this frantic man, even when the situations seem a little too “scripted.” In some ways, it’s the perfect send-off. In others, it’s a painful reminder that, sometimes, talent gets lost in the hopeless Hollywood shuffle for first weekend ticket sales and sequel possibilities. Even if Universal writes off the majority of Walker’s work in Fast and Furious 7 (per current rumor) and starts over from scratch, no tribute could be more touching than this. Hours is a quality diversion, outside of its obvious history. It also argues that, while MIA for a while, Walker’s best work was arguably ahead of him.