Dec. 11 2013 04:09 PM

Hurricane Katrina drama showcases a performer of deceptive range

The late Paul Walker

No matter the film, actor Paul Walker always played the most determined character onscreen. Sometimes his seemingly possessed drive to be heroic or romantic was ridiculed by critics and audiences, especially in his early films, like 2001's The Fast and the Furious and 2003's Timeline. At that point, though, Walker had not yet learned how to use his face to convey anything other than hollow intensity. But like some of his best fictional incarnations, the actor didn't quit.

If his promising performances in 2006's Running Scared and 2013's Pawnshop Chronicles (a pair of insane Wayne Kramer-directed neonoirs) were any indication, Walker was finally figuring out how to circumvent his pretty-boy looks and give his extreme determinism some human conflict and emotional weight. In the latter film, his amazing turn as a meth-head country rube going through a hallucinatory breakdown is superb.

All of this hindsight is particularly relevant because Walker was suddenly killed on Nov. 30 in a horrific traffic accident at the age of 40, along with his business manager, Roger Rodas, who was apparently driving the high-octane Porsche at an unsafe speed.

The actor's death has halted production on the seventh Fast and Furious entry, a major blip on Hollywood's commercial radar. But it also gives added resonance to a film Walker had reportedly completed and felt especially connected to as both a father and professional.

Hours, which opens Friday, Dec. 13, at AMC Plaza Bonita, is set on the eve of Hurricane Katrina in a city hospital where multiple stories seem to be colliding at once. The film quickly focuses on Nolan (Walker), a father-to-be arriving with his pregnant wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez), who's already bleeding heavily.

While his wife is whisked away into the delivery room, Nolan sits in the hospital waiting area, seemingly frozen with shock. Even when 100-mph winds break down windows, causing chaos in the ward, he doesn't move. The world may be going to hell outside, but so is his, albeit in an altogether different way.

Moments later, a doctor informs Nolan that his wife has died, leaving their premature baby daughter breathing with the help of a ventilator. This short but poignant sequence takes place in a hallway isolated from all the chaos, an eerily calm environment for a man with such internal turmoil ready to spill out.

The impact of Abigail's death is so powerful that when Nolan sees his baby for the first time, his initial words are "I don't know you." But Hours will spend its often-thrilling duration proving how quickly that perspective can change.

Evacuations occur, but Nolan can't leave due to the ventilator's weight and need for power. When the levees break, the electricity goes out for good, and he's left with a crank-action generator that only instills the machine with charges of three minutes. This constant exertion not only takes a physical toll on Nolan; it also tethers him to the location, limiting his options for survival.

No matter the dramatic conflict (everything from dwindling supplies to looters threatens Nolan's safety), Hours always stays firmly rooted with its character's personal tumult. Walker instills a fundamental sense of resolve in Nolan that deepens over time, showing without a doubt that the actor is at his best when dealing with the hazy space between fantasy and reality.

There are flashbacks aplenty and multiple sequences that don't ring true, but Hours is mostly a telling showcase for an actor finally discovering his potential for nuanced expression. That Walker will never get to realize his true potential is deeply saddening, but we shouldn't forget that he was already becoming something special, a performer of sheer determination intent on helping others, onscreen and off.

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