In what has to be of the more eerily timed coincidences in contemporary pop culture, “Hours” opens in theaters while the entertainment world is still reeling from the sudden and accidental death of the film’s star, Paul Walker, in a car accident.
And while it might be easy to allow sentimentality to give way to hyperbole under the circumstances, “Hours” does feature Walker giving one of the best performances of his abruptly interrupted career. The film is not without its flaws, but it does allow its star the opportunity to shake off the mantle of matinee idol and to do some intense acting, a challenge that Walker more than meets.
On the morning of August 29, 2005, as the winds start whipping their way through the city of New Orleans as a prelude to Hurricane Katrina, Nolan Hayes (Walker) rushes to the hospital with his wife Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez) as she goes into labor. After the storm shatters the windows in the lobby waiting room, Nolan makes his way upstairs with other staff and family members to await the news.
Soon thereafter, a doctor appears to tell Nolan that the baby, born five weeks prematurely, is a girl, but that Abigail died in childbirth. Since the newborn isn’t yet breathing, it will have to spend the next 48 hours in a respirator until her lungs work on their own.
While Nolan tries processing this staggering personal double whammy, the storm hits, and the levees break, leading to the hospital’s evacuation. Nolan is assured that the generators and the batteries in the respirator will keep the machine going, and that someone will come soon to evacuate him and his new daughter.
The power dies, and the battery in the respirator holds only about three minutes of charge, so Nolan must constantly hand-crank a generator to keep his child alive. Meanwhile, he’s trying to reach outside help, find food and fend off looters, and as he fights off sleep, we see his courtship of his late wife, who appears to give him hope as things get more and more desperate.
“Hours” has a great B-movie premise, down to the ticking clock and escalating danger, and if writer-director Eric Heisserer (the screenwriter of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Thing” remakes, in his directorial debut) had made this a 50-minute episode of a suspense anthology TV series, it would be considered a classic. At 97 minutes, however, the strain of keeping the story going, and throwing more obstacles in Nolan’s way, starts to show.
Still, it’s a stunning showcase for Walker, particularly since it’s virtually a one-man show. Apart from the flashbacks with the always-underutilized Rodriguez and the appearance of medical staff or dangerous characters every few minutes, “Hours” is essentially an extended monologue featuring the actor talking to his newly born daughter about his life, her recently departed mother and his anguish over having lost one and potentially losing the other. (The movie also throws in a stray German shepherd as another listening board for the actor.)
“Hours” doesn’t have a lot to say about Katrina per se, but it does effectively use the disaster as a compelling backdrop without being exploitative. (And for once those Louisiana tax credits apply to a movie that shouldn’t have been filmed anywhere else.)
The loss of Paul Walker is a tragic one, but he couldn’t have asked for a better career epitaph than his powerful work here.