** (out of four)
It’s worth recognizing that “Hours” was scheduled for release Friday well before the shocking death of its star, Paul Walker, on Nov. 30. The film isn’t cashing in on tragedy; it’s merely an example of a terrible coincidence.
The film’s content is harder to defend. Set against Hurricane Katrina in 2005 New Orleans, “Hours” isn’t based on a true story and has a whiff of a screenwriter’s “What if?” After rushing his pregnant wife, Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez), to the hospital, Nolan (Walker) soon learns that Abigail has died but their five weeks-premature daughter has lived. The timing couldn’t be worse: With the storm intensifying and the hospital evacuating, Nolan becomes stranded as his baby, who needs to be on a ventilator for 48 hours, struggles to breathe. Every three minutes Nolan must recharge the battery; he sets his watch timer to ensure he doesn’t crank the lever a second too late.
In fact, “Seconds” would have been a more appropriate title, but perhaps that sounds too much like a movie about a buffet.
Considering the high percentage of African-Americans affected by Katrina, writer-director Eric Heisserer (the writer of the remakes of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Thing”) has no excuse to have the only established black characters be a doctor who bails on Nolan and a thief scouting for drugs. What begins as a tight-but-contrived drama about a man fighting through an impossible situation becomes dangerously close to an action-thriller without moral complications. The one difficult choice Nolan makes isn’t presented as crossing any figurative lines, but only doing what he has to for his child.
And yet—and I promise to be judging the star’s performance objectively, rather than in the wake of his passing—even when the movie and some ill-advised lighter moments let him down, Walker (“The Fast and the Furious,” “Varsity Blues”) holds his own. In flashbacks showing the beginning and progression of Nolan and Abigail’s relationship, he’s charming but not overly weightless. In moments of despair, he emotes credibly.
So credit Walker, an actor without a ton of memorable performances under his belt but here asked to carry an entire film, for bringing “Hours” as far as it goes. We can only wonder about any further steps he might have taken.
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