"Hours," one of Paul Walker's last films and arriving in theaters just two weeks after his death in a fiery crash, comes as a modest memorial to the 40-year-old's career. But it is not the stirring emotional performance many hoped for, nor will it redefine the actor, best known for playing opposite Vin Diesel in "The Fast and Furious" franchise.
This drama, about an ordinary guy trying to keep his infant daughter alive in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, is sincere but struggles as much as its hero.
Written and directed by Eric Heisserer and shot on location in New Orleans last year, "Hours" is a bit of a B-movie chamber piece. With a limited budget, the film spends most of its time inside a single hospital room with Walker in virtually every scene. News footage pulled from the hours before and after the massive storm hit the region is seeded throughout the movie to fill in some of the contextual blanks. But all that matters here is what happens within those four walls.
"Hours" begins early on Aug. 29, 2005. Nolan Hayes (Walker) races through rain-slick streets to the hospital with his pregnant wife, Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez), who's gone into labor five weeks early. As the force of the hurricane builds and a levee breaks, water crashes through plate-glass windows in the waiting room where Nolan's been sent. But far more devastating events are unfolding on the maternity ward a few floors above him.
Moments later, Walker's Nolan learns his wife didn't make it through the delivery and his new daughter is alive, but barely, surviving on a ventilator. The next 48 hours on that machine are critical. And so the ticking time bomb of survival is set.
Those opening scenes — a new mother's death, a premature birth, a baby's life on the line — which should be ripped through with emotion, are clumsy at best, filled with awkward exchanges and bad camera angles. The movie improves as it gets into Nolan's fight to keep his daughter alive. The ventilator is key — it must be kept on, even when the power fails, even when the backup generators die, even when everyone else evacuates.
From that point, the film settles into a series of crises lifted from the headlines of that time: A stray dog, who becomes Nolan's sole companion for a while. A looter in paramilitary gear, who steals his food. Some armed thugs in search of drugs. And always the ventilator with its failing battery and the manual generator Nolan must crank by hand, never buying him more than a couple of minutes to forage for saline bags or other supplies the baby needs.
Cutting through the chaos are memories of Nolan's life with Abigail. Sometimes the memories come in flashback. Other times — and this is when the film is at its best — the past unfolds like a bedtime story, as he tells his new daughter about her mother. But the tension that, like the waters, should be rising as the hours pass and rescue hopes fade rarely matches the desperate situation.
Heisserer, who is making his directing debut with the film, has spent most of his time in Hollywood as a writer of horror films, including 2011's "The Thing" and 2010's dismal re-imagining of the 1984 cult classic, "A Nightmare on Elm Street," which he co-wrote with Wesley Strick. "Hours" is a step up, but the directing is so rough the film is unlikely to be a game-changer.
The drama is the fourth film starring Walker to land this year ("Brick Mansions," a remake of the Luc Besson co-written "Banlieue 13," is due in 2014). All but "Fast & Furious 6" have proved to be disappointments, though "Hours" is the best of the rest. The actor does a respectable turn as Nolan, but it is Walker's portrayal of "Furious" good guy Brian O'Conner that will remain his Hollywood legacy.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, violence and drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: In select theaters and on VOD
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