Brian O’Conner is a terrible cop. Over the course of the Fast & Furious franchise, O’Conner, its nominal hero:
- Develops a deep man-crush on street racing thief Dominic Toretto.
- Lets Toretto escape from police.
- Steals laundered money—which is also evidence in a federal investigation—from a drug kingpin.
- Invites Toretto to escape from police a second time after he’s involved in more shady dealings with other drug dealers.
- Breaks Toretto out of prison after he refuses to run.
- Steals more money from another drug kingpin and…
- Causes untold thousands of dollars of property damage to Rio de Janeiro in the process.
Actually, looking over that resumé, terrible might be an understatement. A case could be made Brian O’Conner is, in fact, the single worst cop in movie history. But through it all, Brian had one thing going for him: He was played by Paul Walker, who died last weekend at the age of 40. Walker, who appeared in all but one of the Fast & Furious movies to date, was a crucial but often unappreciated part of the franchise’s appeal.
The tributes to Walker that poured in over the last few days went beyond the typical platitudes seen whenever a movie star passes away. Friends and co-workers hailed the actor as much for his generosity and good deeds off-camera as his career in front of it. Walker was praised for his extensive humanitarian efforts (he died just after attending a fundraiser for his disaster relief organization, Reach Out Worldwide) and described by colleagues as “a gentleman,” a “humble spirit,” and “a truly good person in a town of questionable characters.” Over and over, you heard the same thing: Paul Walker was a good guy. And that, more than anything else, is what he brought to the Fast & Furious movies. Brian O’Conner often did bad things. But thanks to Paul Walker, he always seemed like a good guy.
After The Fast And The Furious became a surprise blockbuster in 2001, much of the credit and attention for its success was showered on Walker’s co-star Vin Diesel, who parlayed its popularity into several other franchises and eventually an additional role as producer of the Fast franchise. The reaction to Walker’s work was typically far less enthusiastic. Roger Ebert actually liked the first Fast & Furious but barely mentioned Walker; in his review of 2 Fast 2 Furious he called him “pleasant, but not compelling.” In The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell derisively compared Walker’s performance to the “affectless delivery” of Keanu Reeves.
The connection wasn’t entirely unreasonable; much of the original Fast’s plot and power dynamics—reckless rookie cop goes undercover in cool California subculture and grows confused by the bromantic feelings he develops towards a suave criminal—were lifted directly from Reeves’ Point Break. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, Walker’s tousled blonde hair and piercing blue eyes made him look like a surfer dude, another reason to draw the comparison. But Walker radiated a kind of wholesome goodness that separated him from Reeves. It’s hard to imagine Walker, for example, in Reeves’ role from The Devil’s Advocate; he never would have fallen for Satan’s seduction. Even as Brian screwed up time and again, Walker gave the character an unfailing moral compass. He broke the law, but only in the service of doing the right thing. Walker wasn’t the equal of an actor like Henry Fonda, but he had a little of his innate Midwestern decency.
Sweet-tempered and magnanimous, Walker seemed slightly outmatched in every altercation with The Fast And The Furious’ endless supply of aggressive gear-heads and sinister drug dealers. But his genial, innocent demeanor invited underestimation, and his guilelessness made him a great movie underdog. And then he surprised viewers with sudden bursts of toughness and determination.
A look back at the original The Fast And The Furious reveals a film that’s already pretty stale. The intra-engine CGI effects look fake, all the bad guys wear leather pants and chain wallets, and Ja Rule is all over the soundtrack (and the supporting cast). The part that holds up best is Walker’s performance; relaxed, confident, and charismatic.
True, Brian O’Conner is a horrible undercover cop. From his very first scene, when he tries to woo Jordana Brewster’s Mia Toretto with flirtatious orders of tuna fish sandwiches on white bread with the crust cut off—an amusing metaphor for Walker’s own ultra-square charm—it’s pretty clear that he’s not who he claims to be. But as he bumbles his way through the case, sussing out the Torettos’ role in a series of highway robberies with amusing earnestness, he makes his slightly dweeby character appealingly straightforward and genuine.
In recent Fast installments, Walker’s screen time was somewhat diminished as Brian’s rivalry and non-sexual love affair with Toretto was supplanted by the one between Diesel and Dwayne Johnson. But even as his narrative role was reduced, his emotional position in the series remained unchanged: Walker is, was, and always will be the warm heart beating beneath the Fast & Furious’ layers of burly, well-sculpted muscle.