Sometimes an upstanding citizen just wants to sit down with a nice cup of tea and enjoy the well-told adventures of a highly skilled, utterly unscrupulous felon. Donald E. Westlake’s 24 Parker novels (written as Richard Stark) capitalize on the appeal of a character who personifies competence untroubled by emotions or ethical principles. Parker’s exploits have already been successfully adapted to film (Point Blank, Payback). And, at a time when borderline sociopaths flourish in pop culture (Dexter Morgan, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House), he might seem to fit right in. So why is Parker, based on Stark’s 2000 novel Flashfire, so boring?
For one thing, Taylor Hackford, best known as a director of ’80s action movies, has replaced Westlake’s stripped-down, hard-boiled prose with the bombast of an ’80s action movie. The opening heist, which occupies just a few pages of the novel, has become an elaborate business set at the Ohio State Fair, with marching bands, square dancers and midway rides offering distraction. Hackford can do atmosphere, as he shows again when the action moves to the glittering boulevards of West Palm Beach. But he lets Parker get lost in the crowd.
Two more choices contribute to making the title character forgettable in his own movie. First, he’s played by Jason Statham — a serviceable actor, with the right granite exterior, but lacking the Clint Eastwood magnetism that might draw us into the mind behind it.
Second, the movie seems to suffer from a misguided attempt to chase the female demo. Toward the midpoint, after Parker has sworn to recoup his money from the crew of miscreants that double-crossed him and left him for dead, the film’s focus shifts abruptly to Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez), a down-on-her-luck realtor in West Palm Beach. In time, Parker’s search for vengeance brings them together, at which point Leslie becomes a quivering Parker fangirl. He, who already has an adoring girlfriend (Emma Booth), is grateful for her assistance but indifferent to her attentions.
Leslie could have been a gritty character study of a law-abiding woman gone wrong. Instead, Lopez plays her with the cutesy mannerisms and foibles of a rom-com heroine, though there’s nothing romantic about her interactions with Parker, except in her imagination. The character ultimately proves more of an impediment than a partner in crime, which makes you wonder why she’s there.
The film’s best scene is one in which Hackford returns to the brutal roots of the hard-boiled genre: a bloody, drawn-out fight between Parker and an assailant. But the film’s villains (including seasoned actors Michael Chiklis and Wendell Pierce) remain one-note, and the script’s efforts to make Parker a kinda-sorta good guy fall flat. In a nod to 99 percent solidarity, we’re asked to believe that Parker steals because everybody steals that his victims are diamond-bedecked fat cats and slimeballs and that he keeps the innocent out of the line of fire and sometimes even, Robin Hood-like, redistributes ill-gotten gains to them.
All well and good, but the story’s basic premise tells us that Parker is no Robin Hood. He defies a crime boss and demands violent restitution of a sum of stolen cash he doesn’t need, just on principle. It’s hard to see how this restores order to “civilized society,” an ideal Statham’s Parker enjoys invoking.
In bringing the character to the screen as the potential linchpin of a new franchise, the filmmakers seem to have sacrificed what makes him unique. What’s left is a pretty generic action flick with some ill-conceived “stuff for the ladies” grafted on. For your fix of stone-cold amorality, look elsewhere.
* Running time: 118 min.
* Rated: R