Hollywood has been revisiting the late Donald E. Westlake’s Parker character since the 1960s, but Jason Statham breaks away from tradition – by possessing both his original name and a newfound conscience – in the simply titled Parker. The result feels at home with Statham’s moral criminal persona, but the remainder of the film is a departure from his past Euro-thrillers (The Transporter), extreme pop action riffs (Crank) and genre throwbacks (The Expendables, Safe).
Director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter John J. McLaughlin adapt “Flashfire” (the 19th of 24 Parker novels written by Westlake) into a hard-boiled crime-thriller that forgoes Noir-ish fatalism – found in Parker movies like Point Blank and The Split – as well as the dark humor Mel Gibson brought while playing “Porter” in Payback. Statham, per usual, embodies machismo as Parker, but his version of the character is closer to a Blaxploitation hero – operating on a moral code and stickin’ it to ‘the man’ (re: the undeserving elite) – than a ruthless crook with no redeeming values.
Parker introduces Statham as a saint among thieves; literally, he disguises himself as a priest during a robbery at the Ohio State Fair and keeps the people caught in the fray calm, while his compatriots dress as clowns and the cocky, inexperienced August (Micah A. Hauptman) carelessly puts the lives of innocent people in danger. However, things really go bad when the crew’s boss, Melander (Michael Chiklis), refuses Parker his share during the getaway, but promises a much bigger payout if he helps them on a new job. A fight ensues and Parker is left for dead on the side of the road.
Once he recovers, though, he sets out to collect the due pay(back) from Melander and his men (including Clifton Collins Jr. and Wendell Pierce). Parker follows them to Palm Beach in Florida, discovering their planned score involves $50-70 million worth of diamonds. There, he meets Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), a divorcee pushing 40 who immediately sees through Parker’s fake identity as a Texas mogul looking to buy new real estate. Leslie agrees to keep Parker’s secret, on the condition that she gets a share from his payback scheme (in part as compensation for her years of enduring disrespect and being ignored by her wealthy clients).
The elements are there for Parker to fly high as pulpy entertainment, with Statham playing the rare male badass who’s not a womanizer – rather, Parker’s committed to his girlfriend (Emma Booth) and her father/his friend (Nick Nolte) – and yet, still able to get his hands dirty in a creative fashion. Indeed, Parker finds way to hurt people using things like toilet tank lids and gun clips in creative ways that resonate on a deeper level of irony (and entertain anyone who’s just looking to watch Stath bring on the hurt). That violence is limited, but effective and responsibly bloody in execution, even when Parker hurts himself in a cringe-inducing knife fight.
However, Hackford’s direction, while competent, leaves something to be desired; similarly, there are some questionable editing choices along the way that stand out as clumsy and confusing in logic (ex. flashbacks during the middle-of-action in the opening robbery set piece). McLaughlin’s script has no pretensions about elevating Westlake’s dime novel tropes, but it also has limited fun playing around with them. As indicated before, there’s recognition of the appeal these stories have for regular people (see: a short montage where clueless rich people ogle diamonds is a fun setup, giving extra reason to cheer the working-class Parker and Leslie), just not enough and in limited doses. Steven Soderbergh’s collaboration with J-Lo on Out of Sight provides a great counter-example on how to properly treat similar material; Hackford’s film, by comparison, is far less lively and energized on all levels.
When all is said and done, Parker just doesn’t reach the comfortable middle ground between satisfying action junkies looking for exhilarating, witty thrills and satisfying viewers interested in a smart pulpy genre exercise. Statham and his supporting cast do fine work, but they’re weighed down by unexceptional storytelling behind the camera. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting this is a unique Stath vehicle that has more going on than just allowing him to showcase bravado fight choreography – and it even plays with his eye candy status, in a scene featuring the ‘female gaze.’
In summation: if you’re interested in standard kick ass Statham entertainment, Parker will probably leave you bored. Everyone else, there’s an unremarkable but (mostly) satisfactory crime tale worth checking out, especially in comparison to what else is playing in theaters right now (though you’ll also be fine waiting to rent it).
Here’s the trailer for Parker:
Parker is now playing in theaters. It is 118 minutes long and Rated R for strong violence, language throughout and brief sexual content/nudity.