Documentary Review: “I Am Paul Walker”

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I watched the “I Am Paul Walker” retrospective documentary when it aired on Paramount Network last summer, and neglected to take notes and review it.

It felt incomplete.

But now the 90 minute version of this brisk, 120 minute (including many many commercials) film is coming out, with thirty minutes of “new” footage,” so I checked it out again in this longer cut.

It’s still warm and affectionate, a real appreciation of a guy his “Fast/Furious” franchise co-star Tyrese Gibson described as “the nicest dude on human feet…The guy every woman wanted to be with and every dude wanted to be like.”

But even at 90 minutes, “I Am Paul Walker” is seriously lacking in its collection of expert witnesses and in the pursuit of a more complete picture of the handsome blond screen icon who died on Nov. 30, 2013.

Filmmaker Adrian Buitenhuis got unlimited access to Walker’s large, adoring family. Well, most of it.

And he could generously sample a whirlwind decade and a half of TV interviews and lots of home movies of the beautiful Mormon boy who became a child almost-star before growing into the surfer/racer/snowboarder/scuba diver adrenaline junky hunk he became.

But Vin Diesel isn’t here. Nor Jordana Brewster, Walker’s love interest in those “Furious” movies. Gibson is the film’s MVP, because he was genuinely close to Walker, who spoke up for him when the studio (Universal) wanted Gibson’s character written out of “the family” entirely.  Nobody else, aside from first “Furious” director Rob Cohen appears on camera.

Walker’s teenage love Rebecca, the mother of his daughter, Rebecca, is felt in her absence.

By fixating on the family and upbringing, Buitenhuis gets lots of detail of Walker’s “take it or leave it” attitude to a film career that seemed to come easily, his need to get away and stay “grounded.” But there’s so much more to mine that “I Am Paul Walker” feels like a TV quickie rather than a work that took time to make.

When Walker died, stories started popping up — about overhearing a soldier and his fiance not being able to afford an engagement ring at a jewelry store, watching them leave and paying for the ring himself, not seeking attention or “credit,” just doing a generous and very human thing.

I heard that one, and having interviewed Walker a few times, it sounded absolutely authentic.  The guy was that down to Earth.

“I Am Paul Walker” has a firefighter friend who recalls a flight Walker paid for and joined, financing a ROWW (Reach Out Worldwide) trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti to work with firefighters and first responders, again ducked credit and attention for stuff like that.

A water baby who took roles (“Into the Blue”) just for the chance to work in the ocean, he was a big backer of shark preservationist and researcher Michael Domeier, who also appears in the film.

And what his big family tearfully remembers about Walker is, while flattering, also revealing. He was a rough and ready dude who shrugged off the “pretty boy” label, on and off the set. He got into fights, even when he was a child actor, burned through money (his family had to help) and used words like “gnarly” and “bro” like they were his natural language.

Which they were.

His agent Matt Luber may be the most frank witness to testify here, a relationship fraught with fights over what he could and couldn’t talk Walker into doing.

“Superman?” Too cool to wear tights.

Presenter at the Golden Globes? “Can’t make it. Family.”

He wrestled Walker into “Running Scared,” which could have been a career-defining departure for Walker, already feeling trapped by the “Furious” commitments. Director Wayne Kramer remembers telling him, “You’re going to be McQueen in your 40s — get a few wrinkles, a little grit and age.”

Walker died at 40, a passenger in a friend’s high-end Porsche, a “widow-maker” of a sports car, just as it was for James Dean 60 years earlier.

 

Luber remembers Walker’s final film, the indie Dad tries to save his new baby in a hurricane thriller “Hours,” as perhaps his finest and certainly the closest to Walker’s heart.

There are revelations here for his fans, his nickname (“The Vagrant”) for being a thrift-store shopping hippy surfer who liked fast cars and guns, for instance.

When he wanted to pay tribute to the military men in his family — grandad was a Pearl Harbor survivor (a diver), Dad earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam — there was nothing that could keep him out of Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers.”

“I’ll do it for free.”

And director Rob Cohen’s pivotal role in Walker’s rise, casting him in “The Skulls” (2000) before laying “The Fast and the Furious” (2001) at his feet, is well laid out.

But beloved cultural figures like Walker, taken too young, rarely get more than one screen documentary biography. Not everybody’s James Dean, an icon of his era, and even Heath Ledger has only seen one creditable documentary about his life.

That’s why it’s important to not let your one shot turn out incomplete. No doubt Buitenhuis approached the missing faces to try and talk them into making appearances in his film. They may have reasons to avoid him.

But they almost certainly weren’t good reasons, and he should have done a better job of making them see that and talking them into lending their voices to this remembrance of the guy who gave most of them the biggest breaks and biggest paydays of their careers.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Rob Cohen, Matt Luber,

Credits: Directed by Adrian Buitenhuis. A Paramount Network release.

Running time: 1:30

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