The late Paul Walker practiced the kind of manly American acting that often doesn't look like acting at all. In movie after movie, many of them of the fast and/or furious variety, Walker performed the difficult trick of seeming to really be the apple-pie tough guys he played. In those wildly profitable (and tremendously fun) car chase movies, he was the nice young man, the slightly square every-honky cool enough to be down with gearheads of all races but also just Opie-like enough to get cracked on by Ludacris. Like Keri Russell in a romantic comedy, Walker managed to make his striking gorgeousness — and all the crunches and hair product involved in maintaining it — seem incidental, something his more-human-than-most action heroes just happened into and maybe didn't even quite know about. He was a transparent hunk, somehow convincing audiences he was more like us schlubs in the seats than he was like Vin Diesel, The Rock, or the Abercrombie models he actually resembled.
Now, just weeks after his out-of-nowhere death, Walker is starring in a film that demands the opposite of him. For once, he shows his work. In Hours, Walker plays his every-est everyman yet, a regular fella named Nolan who faces problems that can't be solved by stunt driving. The movie, written and directed by the promising Eric Heisserer, is set almost entirely within a gloomy urban hospital where Nolan's newborn child is being kept alive by a respirator. Problem is, said hospital is in New Orleans in 2005, and in the first 10 minutes, characters keep mentioning that a storm is coming. It comes, of course, knocking out the power and causing the evacuation of the hospital. Everyone flees except for Nolan and the baby, whom Nolan keeps alive by pumping a battery charger that, for reasons having more to do with manufacturing suspense than mechanics, only powers the respirator for three minutes at a time.
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You might ask, "Where is the mother in all this?" Then, having seen a movie before, you'll probably assume — rightly — that Heisserer has found a way to get her out of the picture so that everyone can focus on the one thing Hollywood has always been interested in above all others: dudes doing things. The wife (Genesis Rodriguez) appears in some quietly affecting flashbacks, but she doesn't survive the child's birth — or the first reel. That gives Walker the chance for the kind of extended-scene emoting the Fast and Furious lugs don't get when their women are killed off for plot reasons. Before the hurricane hits, a doctor breaks the news. Walker responds in one long, raw take: first confusion, then confused denial, than panicked bullying: "Don't touch me, and tell me she's fine!" It's a sturdy performance undermined by the cheapness of the setup. We've seen deaths like this in a thousand movies, mostly written in to free up the hero for his adventures, and audiences have long ago accepted that such tragedies can be hustled through with a single screamed "No!"
The film stirs richer, truer feelings once it becomes a one-man show. This is due both to Heisserer's and Walker's skill — the tension is strong, the scenario elemental, and Walker's harried, urgent hero is compelling — but also the fact that the movies are really good at dudes doing things, especially when those things are scrappy, desperate, and heroic. Practically every scene is built around a countdown clock. Nolan races off from his baby's side to radio for help in an ambulance just outside the hospital, but two minutes later, his watch alarm goes off, and he has to dash back upstairs to recharge the respirator. Heisserer turns the screws: Inexplicably, the battery's life grows continually shorter, so Nolan's three-minute window drops a couple seconds every hour.
Walker's harried dad makes a heart-in-throat trip to the flooded basement to find a more reliable generator. He dashes to the roof to try to wave down helicopters. He squares off with scavengers looting the hospital and even gets an action-hero moment or two, but the movie has the decency not to pretend that the violence is a thrill. By the end, when Walker and the audience have been well and truly harrowed, the movie has come to resemble 2013's more fashionable lone-hero-versus-the-elements thrillers, Gravity and All Is Lost. Hours aims for the Redbox rather than the art house, and it lacks the thrilling technique of those films. But Heisserer's pulpy, stubbornly unexistential take on the genre proves, in the thick of the story, nearly as potent — here's a hero who's maybe like you, suffering like you might but also scraping through like you hope you could. And here's an actor letting his guard down, letting us see the effort that went into all those performances that always seemed almost effortless, using his craft to reveal a bit of the usual lie.