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Paul Walker plays a father struggling to keep his infant daughter alive during Hurricane Katrina in “Hours.”

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Think you knew Paul Walker? Not so fast

  • Article by: ROB NELSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 7, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Anyone who thinks Paul Walker was just a pretty face in a fast car must stand corrected by “Hours,” in which the late actor plays a strung-out widower trying to keep his infant daughter alive — and driving not at all.

Walker, the “Fast and Furious” star who died recently in a car crash at age 40, gained international fame and a presumed fortune for appearing, always likably, in a series of loud, crude, implausibly effective fantasies of reckless endangerment that together grossed more than $2 billion worldwide. In Hollywood terms, he had won the race.

But “Hours,” available starting Friday on demand, reveals that the actor was secretly at work on expanding his range — which of course makes the movie’s already forceful dramatization of tragic loss even more harrowing. Like “The Dark Knight,” released soon after the death of Heath Ledger, “Hours” has been placed in the rare category of action films that are all but impossible to experience simply as fiction.

Set almost entirely in a hospital where, at the start of the film, the wife of Walker’s character dies in childbirth, “Hours” is intense but not unbearably so, thanks in large part to the star’s palpable spirit of indomitability toward reaching his goal. Sleep-deprived and stricken with grief, Walker’s Nolan nonetheless commits to giving his premature baby a future, even if it kills him.

Sad circumstances aside, this movie would never have been remembered for its effortless achievements. Shamelessly, it uses Hurricane Katrina as a tool to keep Nolan and the baby stuck in an abandoned New Orleans hospital, the power out and the floodwaters rising — and looters fixing to pounce.

With odds severely stacked against both character and actor, Nolan hand-cranks a portable generator to keep the kid’s incubator warm while Walker tugs the heartstrings and somehow lends legitimacy to the most uncharacteristic Katrina story ever told. No small feat, that.

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Where Walker dared to stretch his tough-guy persona, uncovering hidden reserves of tenderness and vulnerability, writer/director Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men”) continues beating us over the head.

That’s on the evidence of “Some Girl(s)” and “Some Velvet Morning,” a pair of new LaBute-penned films available on demand starting Tuesday.

Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.

© 2014 Star Tribune