If it had come out a year ago, it would have slid by, noticed only by that portion of the cinema audience dedicated to admiring high-speed car chases and wiry blokes who run up the sides of buildings. But Brick Mansions, the latest in the conveyor-belt of French-derived trash-action films – Taxi, The Transporter, Taken – has got something very unusual going for it: Paul Walker, live and in the flesh.
Walker, you will recall, was the actor who appeared in the speed-freak Fast and Furious films, and who died in a car accident in November last year part-way through filming the seventh in the F&F series. His participation in Brick Mansions was no doubt originally designed to try to free him from what by any measure has been a phenomenally successful franchise, having so far grubbed up more than $2.3bn (£1.4bn) in box office receipts across the globe. Admittedly, his role as Damien Collier, an undercover cop infiltrating a gang of hoodlums, is not all that different from his Fast and Furious character (Brian O'Conner, an undercover cop infiltrating a gang of hoodlums), but Walker had, over the past few years, done his best to put some clear water between himself and hyper-fast cars: dog sled adventure yarn Eight Below, heist thriller Taken, surreally berserk gangland saga Running Scared. None really worked: to the world at large, Walker remained Brian O'Conner: blue-eyed, chisel-jawed, fast driving.
To be honest, Brick Mansions is not a great film – it kind of skimps on the parkour, the main reason why anyone went to see District 13, the film it is based on. But there's an eerie sense of dislocation seeing Walker in bluff good health hurling himself around the screen. Cinema has enough ghost-sense and resurrectionism as it is, with its ability to fix in time and immunise against ageing or decay, without it being all too obvious that the person you are looking at had their life brutally cut short only months earlier.
Film critic David Thomson has made something of a study of the death-glamour of the movie star, and it is in this occult area that Walker must now, sadly, be categorised. Thomson suggests that "we the audience invest our imaginative energy, and fantasies, in people who are not exactly there, who live on the screen in a kind of neverworld. The truly unattainable actors, those who have died, have a kind of glamour that protects them. This may be in bad taste to say so bluntly, but it has always been a good career move for an actor to die. It means they put themselves beyond reproach, ageing and criticism."
Walker's predecessors are legion. Rudolph Valentino died in 1926 from peritonitis aged 31, having shot to fame in 1921 with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Jean Harlow, the archetypal platinum blonde, died in 1937 aged 26 after suffering kidney failure. James Dean, like Walker a car accident victim, was 24 when he lost his life in 1955. Marilyn Monroe was a little older, 36, when she succumbed to a barbiturate overdose in 1962. John Belushi, another overdose victim, was 33 when he died in 1982. Heath Ledger, too, died a drug-related death in 2008 at 28. As Thomson points out, cinema has the ability to preserve them in their prime, buffed and polished by film-makers' wiles.
One obvious point to make is that this fixing-in-time inspires a mythology, a luminescence, that would not exist otherwise. A middle-aged, or even elderly Dean might have ended up a Dennis Hopper type roué, with the attendant career ups and downs; Thomson speculates that he may have turned into "a very disagreeable street person". It's hardly likely Monroe would have gone the way of her nearest equivalent, Jayne Mansfield – another early death, at 34, but already washed up – but Monroe would definitely have struggled as the 60s wore on, when the torpedo-bra look she exemplified became redundant as the Hollywood new wave reared its head.
Youth, and the looks that go with it, Thomson says, have a great deal to do with the phenomenon – "in the movies, youth is such an imperative, and for those who die young, there's something magical and mythical about it" – but the intense focus triggered by the shock of death is not confined to those in their 20s and 30s. Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February this year, at 46, and was few people's idea of a sex symbol, but as Thomson points out: "There was the sense of an instant legend ... a hard working, very good actor had become an icon overnight. In some sense we're just suckers for pathos and sentimentality." Hoffman's last film, God's Pocket, is out in the US on Friday – another test of icon-creation.
But the posthumous film is a particular quirk of the film industry: the long-haul of postproduction means that most young actors will have a couple of films in the can when they go. And unlike, say, the post-death album, there's something more immediately poignant about experiencing a living, breathing person on screen than simply listening to their music. And if the performance is sufficiently aligned to the actor's persona, it can become an icon itself. Valentino in Son of the Sheik, Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Ledger in The Dark Knight.
Thomson says: "There's a frisson watching them so soon after death. It's comparable to the moment in a love affair when somebody drops you. You have never loved them more than at that moment. In a year or two, you may look back on it and think, 'God, that was a blessing,' but in the moment when you are left, the pangs of wounded feeling are greatest. I think there's something in this when an actor goes; it makes it a very precious, painful moment.
"It is also compounded by the fact you have an internet out there, just waiting and begging and hoping that a celebrity has died. This incredibly depraved celebrity attitude that exists in the media now means they can run with it for days."
Ah yes, the internet. There's no denying the fact that the traffic-chasing prerogative of news websites and the insta-grief of social media means that all this death-glamour is rapidly amplified to extraordinary levels. Walker's Twitter account apparently added 700,000 followers in the days following his death, with 4.9m "likes" added to his Facebook page and 800,000 added to his Instagram account.
So where does this leave the actual movies? Brick Mansions' box office results in the US, where it opened on 25 April, have been pretty poor, as they have been in the UK after it was released a week later; this suggests that any fan homage for Walker is likely to be left to Fast and Furious 7, which is not due out for another year, with body doubles (including his brother Cody) brought in to finish shooting. There's no particular sense that the romantic comedy Enough Said, released in the US three months after the death of James Gandolfini in June 2013, derived any commercial benefit from the widespread shock that accompanied his demise.
Selling such product is obviously a tricky proposition: no film marketing outfit would want to be seen as cashing in on some gruesome tragedy, but it's also a gift to those aiming to drum up media attention. As one veteran industry PR figure, who did not want to be named, said: "What would I do? Milk the fuck out of it!"
Perhaps we should acknowledge that films tend to perform in relation to their quality as marketable products, and that the death of an actor, highly visible as it may be, is only one, not-especially-decisive element in that process. However, that does not preclude the narrative of death and glamour being all-consuming in its own right. Thomson cites the obsessive interest in the doings of Lindsay Lohan as the prime contemporary example.
"I wouldn't say she has demonstrated she is a particularly good actress, though she's done one or two interesting things – but she's absolutely the celebrity as wreck."
Lohan's new picture, The Canyons, a Bret Easton Ellis-scripted study of blank-affect Los Angelenos, is a case in point. Her character, Tara, lives up to Lohan's public persona as raddled, needy and near to cracking up. (It's an unfortunate coincidence that her co-star works under the name James Deen.) "Alas," concludes Thomson, "there's hardly anything left for her to do but complete the wreckage."