The character of Parker is one of those icons of hard-boiled pulp fiction – a smart alecky bruiser created by legendary novelist Donald Westlake (under his Richard Stark nom de plume), who appeared in over a dozen novels, a handful of cinematic adaptations (most notably portrayed by Lee Marvin in “Point Blank“), and a number of cross-media platforms (like the recent beautifully realized comic books written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke). In the novels, Parker wasn’t a superhero – he was a criminal who would take a beating or bite a bullet but keep on chugging; an unstoppable everyman. And Parker is once again resurrected, this time in the form of the unimaginatively titled “Parker” (based on the “Flashfire” novel), directed by Taylor Hackford and starring Jason Statham as our titular antihero. Unfortunately, this newest film is an undercooked potboiler, one so tastelessly bland and visually indistinguishable that you wonder if anyone associated with the project realized what makes cheapo crime fiction so fun to consume.
Not that “Parker” starts off so terribly – the introductory sequence, which has Parker and his merry band of newly recruited criminal associates, has a certain amount of pep. Parker and the boys (portrayed by a fairly competent group of actors like Wendell Pierce, Michael Chiklis and Clifton Collins Jr., whose characters are so underwritten that calling them simply “the boys” seems perfectly appropriate) are robbing a state fair, with an uncomplicated but not exactly unexciting setup that involves Statham dressing up as a priest, the perfectly timed release of a set of balloons, and a well-placed fire. Of course, things go south, as they tend to do in crime fiction, both because “the psycho one” (newcomer Micah A. Hauptman) accidentally sets the fire in the wrong place and because, after demanding Parker submit his share of the robbery to the planning and execution of the next job, which he refuses, all of these goons try and kill him.
Parker being Parker, though, a couple of bullets won’t slow him down. Instead, he gathers his bearings, alerts his hot young girlfriend (the frequently topless Emma Booth) and her grizzly bear motherfucker of a father who also happens to be his mentor (Nick Nolte, whose voice is becoming so gravelly you can barely understand what he’s saying) and gets to tracking down the bastards that double crossed him so he can have his revenge and get his money. This should be pulp crime movie nirvana – a lone bad-ass on a blood-soaked mission of revenge; a lean, mean thriller that puts brutality front and center and lets all the unnecessarily baggy constraints of traditional movies fall by the wayside. Just blood, bullets, and maybe some blistery wise acre remarks.
But under the direction of journeyman filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who is an underrated visual stylist and has done everything from the top tier Stephen King adaptation “Dolores Claiborne” and lawyerly monster mash “The Devil’s Advocate” to earnest ’80s tearjerkers like “An Officer and a Gentlemen” and “Against All Odds” to the Oscar honored “Ray,” “Parker” totally sags. It’s a visual muddle, indistinguishable from your average low-budget cop show and lacking in any kind of flair or dynamism (save for some “Panic Room“-ish title cards), which it should absolutely indulge in since in crime fiction the style is the substance. Worse yet is the pacing. There must be fifteen minutes of Parker just stealing people’s cars in that first act; and this is when the movie should really be firing on all cylinders. When Parker’s quest for revenge lands him in a tony area of Florida, the movie all but grinds to a screeching halt, punctuated only by moments of atonal, grotesquely realized violence.
This is when Jennifer Lopez, as a sassy Cuban real estate agent who may have an inside scoop on what Parker’s former partners are up to, shows up, and when the movie tries to appropriate the jazzy calypso rhythm of an Elmore Leonard adaptation. It doesn’t work. Instead, it gets bogged down in inane plot mechanics and baffling leaps in logic, like when Parker decides to do some incognito stakeouts wearing the most comically oversized and inconspicuous cowboy hat on the cowboy hat market. (Seriously, you could land a small aircraft on its brim.) Even after Parker decides to partner up with Lopez’s Leslie, it remains unclear why their alliance should work or be necessary at all, should Parker’s scheme come to fruition.
Unlike Statham, who is stalled in his typical action tough guy self, Lopez, to her credit, does bring some dimension to the role that it clearly lacked on the page (the inelegantly utilitarian script is credited to John J. McLaughlin). She’s a tough woman, recently divorced and falling behind on her bills, who makes the advances on Parker since she is kept in the dark about his hot, young, frequently topless girlfriend. Instead of being portrayed as predatory, she’s just a woman who knows what she wants, and in a playful scene where Parker asks her to disrobe to make sure she’s not concealing a wire, the star is wearing some very unflattering, un-movie-star-ish underwear of a real life woman flirting with middle age. It’s a moment that feels beyond refreshing; it’s downright revelatory.
Sadly such moments are few and far between in “Parker.” Instead of being the swiftly constructed thriller it ought to be, a pulpy blast of all killer/no filler fun, it seems to be almost exclusively made of the fatty excess that these kind of stories immediately dispense with. Westlake’s novels are punchy and suspenseful, but not here. Sequences drag on and on, for minutes on end, without any sign of what the point of the sequence is or why it should be included in the movie. There are at least a half dozen subplots, played over countless sequences (like Leslie’s relationship with a pushy local cop played thanklessly by Bobby Cannavale), that are completely unnecessary. Oftentimes “Parker” plays like a collection of deleted scenes that, if presented on an elaborate DVD release, we would handily skip. [D]