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Paul Walker: An appreciation

AMONG the shocking details of Paul Walker's death this past weekend was his age.

AMONG the shocking details of Paul Walker's death this past weekend was his age - he'd turned 40 only a few months before the car accident that claimed his life.

In his most recent "Fast & Furious" installment, Walker still looked like the blue-eyed twenty-something California surfer he was when he broke through in the film business years ago.

His stature as the impossibly good-looking SoCal blond defined him in those early days - a stint on a soap opera, a role in the utopian 1950s send-up "Pleasantville" as the handsome jock who never misses a jump shot.

Director Gary Ross cast him to represent a kind of almost-comical perfection, the sort of iconography that would follow Walker throughout his career, one that found him dodging "himbo" stereotypes and shrewdly playing on his own image.

Exhibit A: His role in the "Fast & Furious" franchise, which commenced in 2001 - appropriate for its status as one of the first movie series to capture (and construct itself around) the changing demographics of a younger moviegoing audience, the so-called millennials.

Walker is the movie's nominal central-casting star, playing an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of street racers, but he melts into a multiethnic ensemble that included Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Rick Yune, as the movie inverts classic hunk-hero formula.

The original was co-scripted by David Ayer ("Training Day"), the LA native who's specialized in exploring his city's new demographic landscape. "F&F" found an enthusiastic audience among younger moviegoers who saw themselves reflected in the movie's themes and crew. (The franchise would be helmed, along the way, by John Singleton and Justin Lin.)

The movies were also among the first to recognize and embrace the industry's move to go global, adding foreign locations and international cast members to appeal to the worldwide audience. The franchise has made billions worldwide, and shows no signs of flagging - "Fast & Furious 6" was among the series' most popular. Walker was in the midst of filming "Fast & Furious 7." (He stars in "Hours," due out later this month, and had completed "Brick Mansions, due out in 2014.)

The movies never asked Walker to do much as an actor, but when called upon, he could stretch a bit. He was good as the straight-laced older brother to mischief-prone Steve Zahn in the enjoyable John Dahl noir "Joy Ride," and solid as stalwart leader of an animal-rescue team in "Eight Below."

He was at his best in a small but crucial role as World War II hero Hank Hansen in "Flags of our Fathers." The movie was special to Walker, and I had a chance to chat with him about it several years ago, when he stopped in Philadelphia on a promotional tour.

Walker talked proudly about being from a military family (his grandfather was a Pearl Harbor survivor), and was thrilled to be working for director Clint Eastwood. Walker's Hansen was a Marine who fought his way through brutal Japanese resistance to plant that famous flag atop Iwo Jima. He spoke movingly and sincerely about the chance to honor servicemen in his own family, and all of those who sacrifice to protect the country.

He leaves behind a daughter.