A little like Tony Scott's sudden passing last year, the news I've just read of Paul Walker's death is having a fairly significant and maybe oversized effect on me, perhaps because of the way I found out about it, via a Comic Book.com article that emphasized the nature of his Fast and Furious family in the days following Thanksgiving.
The truth is, Walker's legacy will always be as a member of that ensemble. The fact that he'll now have died young (40) and in a car crash, no less, will add a further mystique to the series, circumstances that will seem all too appropriate for these films. I read somewhere recently that half of the recent increasing popularity of them was that they accidentally adopted the Avengers movies model before the Avengers movies came along, how each entry in the early phase of the series added a different piece of the puzzle that the later films subsequently integrated, creating a close-knit family feeling that has been entirely unique to watch develop.
Walker and Vin Diesel first united in The Fast and the Furious in 2001. Diesel opted out of appearing in the 2003 sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious, which made it Walker's first starring role. Later efforts like Running Scared and Eight Below (both 2006) were nominal hits, but perhaps suggested that outside the role of Brian O'Conner, Walker was never going to be an out-and-out movie star. His solo efforts may forever best be remembered for 2005's Into the Blue, which co-starred Jessica Alba and featured him in the surf rather than on the road. He also took part in another ensemble crime effort, 2010's Takers. Both of these would be a fine way to look at Walker's legacy outside of the Fast and Furious series.
Walker and Diesel reunited for the fourth film in the series, 2009's Fast & Furious, which was a surprise box office hit, followed quickly by Fast Five in 2011 and this year's Fast & Furious 6, both of which were massive popular successes, the last of which incorporating the seemingly random 2006 entry, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift for a credits sequence that sets up the next entry, which was filming at the time of Walker's death.
Walker was an integral piece of the Fast and Furious family. His distinctive clipped way of speaking sometimes suggested a fairly typical blond hunk of a movie star, a prototypical California or perhaps even Hawaiian beatnik, but not only did he remain loyal to the series, it was his decision to do the second one that helped create the integrity that made it possible. 2 Fast was the first in the series that I saw, and I found it immediately captivating, Walker's ability to fit into any scenario or immediate charisma opposite any costar quickly apparent. I'd already been a fan of Diesel's thanks to his first appearance as Riddick in Pitch Black, so my interest in catching up with the first one was immediate, and that led me into the rest of the series, because to me the uniqueness of the whole thing quickly became a Hollywood milestone. In a lot of ways Walker's O'Conner was the lead character of the series even while Diesel's Dominic Toretto became his adopted older brother. The family element was there from the start.
The series has progressed not only on the strength of its trademark breathless action sequences, but for this bond of family that has always been at its heart. The loss of Walker means a real loss in that family. In a weird kind of way, Walker will attain a kind of immortality because of this. The next film and the next film will embrace this, and probably there won't be anymore after that, and for once I hope people won't say how exploitative this will be, because it will only be appropriate. Paul Walker died only a few days after Thanksgiving, and at the start of the greater holiday season, a time when family is most important. These Fast and Furious films are the best example the movies have given us about the importance of family. Closing the series with a meditation on the real death of one of its own will be a heartfelt tribute, not just to a fallen comrade, but a way of extending that bond all the way to the fans, and perhaps new fans, who will once and for all become a part of the phenomenon.
It's not just about the cars. These films were always a way to say something few other films have been able to articulate, and I think that's why they've been such a success, especially the more it's become apparent, that they're about sticking with your family, even when it seems the most difficult thing in the world, even when it seems you will only be hurt if you push further. I'm not saying these films are the answer to everything you ever needed to know about life, but that perhaps with Walker's passing, that great strength of theirs may become even more apparent than ever before. Embrace that. Because the films that follow may be the best yet, and will not only tell the best story of Paul Walker's life, but affirm something that has nothing to do with movies at all. Except in these very remarkable efforts.
Rest in piece, Paul.