I’ll just say it now and face the inevitable onslaught of mockery that follows:
Paul Walker was a damn good actor.
Yes. I said it. Yes, I’ll wait until you’re done picking yourself up off the floor from a hysterical fit of laughter.
Feeling better now?
Okay, good. Now, hear me out.
Before his untimely death in 2013 from a car crash, Walker was known best for his roles in the “Fast & Furious” films. He was perfect for his portrayal of Brian O’Conner, an undercover-cop-turned-street-racing-outlaw. After the first installment of the franchise in 2001, teenage girls everywhere were frothing at the mouth at the very mention of his name. It didn’t matter that he was reading lines from a script apparently written by a pack of hyenas on a six-day coke bender, or that he was acting alongside then-nobody Vin Diesel, who seemed to possess the emotional range of an ill-tempered grizzly bear. No. Upon the release of the first “Furious” film, Walker was immediately written off and typecast as nothing more than a good-looking dude from California who presumably couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.
And I admit, I was quick to be one of those who wrote him off. He reminded me of those douchelords I went to college with who thought it was funny to make rape jokes in front of sorority girls. And even though Paul O’Conner seemed to be a nice enough guy in the movie who just wanted to do the right thing, I just couldn’t get past that dumb California-boy face of his.
Fast forward two years. The “Fast & Furious” sequel came out. It was infuriatingly titled “2 Fast, 2 Furious.” Seriously. If that title doesn’t make you hate everything associated with it, you’re an asshole. You’re just as bad as the assholes who make movies with names like that. In fact, you should probably just stop watching movies altogether and go read a book or something. Let the rest of us be cynical and secretly enjoy it when we get to mock things as blatantly as we mock movies with titles like that.
I’m not sure if this was a good or bad thing, in retrospect, but “2 Fast, 2 Furious” also lacked any trace of Vin Diesel whatsoever. This was probably because Diesel was on his way to being more well-known for his emergence as adrenaline-junkie-turned-secret-agent in “XXX,” which still just barely edges “Deep Impact” as my favorite movie that sounds like a porn but actually isn’t. Since Diesel was the supposed centerpiece of the first “Furious,” his absence from the sequel made me think this franchise had stalled out before it even began. (Now I kind of hate myself for making that pun.)
But what was more notable about “2 Fast” was Walker’s new costar — Tyrese Gibson. You know, the rapper. Good lord, I thought when I first saw the poster, this has potential to be the most obnoxious film ever created. And oh boy, it came close. Walker and Gibson engaged in brain-meltingly shitty dialogue for two hours amidst improbable car chases and hero worship. Somehow, the script was even shittier than the first. I don’t how it did it, but it did. And it was directed by John Singleton! You know, the guy who got nominated for Best Director in 1991 for “Boyz n the Hood!” The guy who directed “Rosewood!” And “Higher Learning!” What the fuck was happening to the world?! Had everyone in Hollywood just collectively said “AHAHAHA FUCK MY CAREER” and decided the only thing left to do was troll the public? I had no idea. But considering it’s now 2016 and that still a question I ask myself about 94% of the time whenever I see a new trailer, I’m afraid of what the answers really are.
I digress. All that was in 2003. Fast forward another three years to 2006. By then, everyone had presumably enough time to adequately drink off the cinematic abortion that was “2 Fast, 2 Furious.” How kind of Hollywood to bear that in mind. While sitting in a dark theater on a cold, rainy night in Seattle, preparing to watch another movie I can’t recall now, I saw a preview for a movie called “Running Scared.” I recognized a few faces in it; namely Chazz Palminteri, an actor who’s one of those guys who plays the same dude in every movie he’s in and somehow it still works. And that fucking Russian guy. Not the Russian guy from “Armageddon” (Peter Stormare) or the Russian from “Snatch” and “Mission Impossible” (too lazy to Google him now). It’s the ugly, nasty Russian who looks like he kills people with his teeth. Not by biting them, but not physically removing his own teeth from his mouth and forcing them into your eye sockets. That Russian.
So, the preview for “Running Scared” looked really promising. It looked tense, taut, and (gasp) original. It wasn’t based off a bestselling novel or a comic book reboot. It wasn’t a half-brained sequel that may as well have been titled “WATCH THESE ACTORS MAKE MONEY OFF YOUR STUPID MOVIEGOING DECISIONS.” It seemed to be none of those. Okay, movie, I thought. You got me. I’m interested in these things you are displaying to me.
I was on board with this preview. But then, halfway through…..wait, I thought. Isn’t that….holy shit! NO! It’s THAT GUY! Paul Walker! The dumb California boy from The Faster and the Furiouser! Oh god, something has to ruin everything nowadays. There is no justice in this world. Sigh.
So, despite this movie featuring a really promising trailer, Walker’s face made me instantly ready to write it off just as quickly as it had piqued my interest. This is the power of entertainment. Kinda like when you love a band, and they collaborate with Nickelback? You’re probably not gonna listen to that album unless you love crappy music or you’re a depraved twat from Saskatchewan. Just like if you see a really good movie trailer and it stars Paul Walker. Same shit.
But none of this stopped my good friend Todd from seeing “Running Scared” on its opening weekend. I declined an offer to go with him because, I told him, I have a waning few number of healthy brain cells remaining, and I’d like to avoid sacrificing more of them to the Stupidity Gods if I could actively avoid it. So I stayed home and probably watched “XXX” again. I don’t remember.
When Todd left the theater, I got a text.
“Dude….you missed out.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What did I miss?” I wrote back. “Paul Walker sending a torpedo of shitty acting into a halfway decent-looking movie?”
“No…” Todd wrote back. “This was a seriously fucking good movie. You’d like it.”
I shook my head incredulously. Right, I thought. This is gold. Todd has to be fucking with me.
“Go see it,” he said after I didn’t reply.
So, dear readers, I finally saw it when it came out on DVD. (Remember when people still rented those?) And let me tell you….Todd was not wrong.
Oh no, was he ever not wrong. I’m not sure Todd has ever been so not wrong about anything in his life.
Originally, a lot of reviews came out condemning “Running Scared” for being exactly the kind of movie I had suspected it would be: hyper-violent, hyperactive, and bloody as hell. I’m not opposed to spectacles of that sort, but I had my doubts as to whether there was anything to it beyond that.
Simply put, “Running Scared” is a two-hour ride of pants-shitting awesomeness that will have you white-knuckling the living hell out of the sides of your couch. It is a furiously intense wrecking ball of a movie that catapults itself into absolute insanity after one of the coolest opening scenes I can ever remember watching. It’s a simple enough premise — a thug named Joey Gazelle, played by Walker, is instructed to dispose of a gun used to kill a dirty cop. But, in a theme that begins quickly and lasts throughout, things go horribly wrong for Joey when the gun is stolen by a troubled kid who lives next door. When the kid runs off, Joey has to follow his trail into a hellish world of nightmares and horror to find that gun. And, predictably, time is not on their side.
“Running Scared” gave us a look at the actor Paul Walker really was. He was fiery, wild-eyed, and intense in his performance of Joey Gazelle. During the entire film, the look on his face suggested that he wasn’t acting at all — that all of this was real, and if that gun wasn’t found by the end of that horrible night, he’d be dead. Not just dead, but possibly-tortured-on-a-hockey-rink and then dead. Maybe even fed to sharks and then dead. Who knows. Hard to say. It could’ve been either one. But if you look at Joey Gazelle during any point in the second half of “Running Scared,” it’s almost impossible not to feel tense.
Joey Gazelle is the anti-Brian O’Conner. O’Conner had a wild side, sure, but if O’Conner was forced into the situation Gazelle found himself in, O’Conner would rope in Vin Diesel and half the Italian special forces to help him out. Gazelle, for all the character’s undoings and imperfections as a father and a husband, has a borderline psychotic conviction to find this gun. The places he follows the firearm-stealing kid next door into are scarier than half the horror movies you’ll probably ever see. Scenes from “Running Scared” will stay with you long after the ending credits are over. And yet, it will compel you to watch it again. It’s that fucking good.
So, when “Running Scared” came out on Netflix this month, I felt equally compelled to yell about it here. And also to commemorate a truly underrated performance from an actor who left this world tragically, and too fucking soon. Watch “Running Scared” for yourself, and keep a fresh pair of pants nearby.