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The studio required all critics attending this week’s press screening of Parker to sign a statement promising that we would not write about the film before opening day. Usually this signals high anxiety about a film’s reception, which in this case might not be entirely warranted. The picture is far from great, but it’s a serviceable B-movie with some A-list talent on a slumming expedition. Fans of the genre, star Jason Statham and mystery writer Donald E. Westlake should ensure an audience for this gritty caper, though it won’t break any box-office records.
Taylor Hackford, who has directed many different kinds of movies, from An Officer and a Gentleman to Dolores Claiborne and Ray, tackles his first hard-boiled thriller, in part because of his admiration for Westlake (who died in 2008). Several of Westlake’s books have been made into movies, but this is the first time that his estate allowed filmmakers to use the Parker name. Hackford wrote a recent article in the Los Angeles Times expressing his admiration for some of the earlier Westlake adaptations, especially John Boorman’s dazzling 1967 film of Point Blank, which was remade by Brian Helgeland as Payback and unofficially remade by several other directors. Many of these stories are tales of revenge, in which a wronged antihero gets even with the crooks and confederates who betrayed him.
Parker is a criminal with his own code of honor. In the well-executed opening sequence of the new film, one of Parker’s accomplices bungles a robbery at the Ohio State Fair, leading to deaths that weren’t supposed to be part of the operation. A disgruntled Parker refuses to join his cronies on the next job they are planning, so they shoot him and leave him for dead — the exact fate Lee Marvin suffered at the beginning of Point Blank. But the badly wounded Parker recovers and sets out to track down his gang as they plot their next score in Palm Beach, Fla.
At the time that Boorman made Point Blank, the Motion Picture Production Code was crumbling but still in force, so though Marvin’s Walker wreaked havoc on his enemies, he didn’t actually kill any of them. That last vestige of morality has long since vanished, and it’s now perfectly acceptable for a movie’s protagonist to commit multiple murders and elude punishment. Some of this moral queasiness infects Parker; no matter how loathsome his enemies, the protagonist’s brutal vigilante behavior seems more disturbing than the filmmakers might realize.
However, the questionable morality of this movie is not really the worst of its failings. The script by John J. McLaughlin doesn’t have enough invention. There are a few neat plot twists, but more complications and surprises would have helped to sustain this two-hour movie. The film also could use the biting satirical touches that Boorman and screenwriter Alexander Jacobs brought to their dissection of California culture in Point Blank. The characters here are underdeveloped. Michael Chiklis has the presence to play a formidable antagonist to Parker, but McLaughlin hasn’t given him enough definition to make him a truly memorable villain. Nick Nolte (as Parker’s mentor) and Patti LuPone (as the heroine’s nagging mother) try to enliven paper-thin parts.
Hackford’s direction also is uneven. The Palm Beach locations enhance the movie’s persuasive atmosphere, and some of the fight scenes are well choreographed (with bone-crunchingly realistic stunt work by Statham and others), but in other scenes, the editing is so frenetic that we don’t get a clear picture of exactly what’s happening.
Statham’s role doesn’t demand greater depth than he’s shown in earlier genre pictures, but he makes a convincingly bruised protagonist. The movie’s biggest surprise is the performance of Jennifer Lopez as the Palm Beach real estate agent who becomes Parker’s ally as he plots his revenge. Lopez downplays her glamorous image to give a refreshingly low-key portrayal of a put-upon, financially strapped working woman who manages to be useful to Parker when he least expects it. This may be Lopez’s most appealing screen performance since she traded barbs with George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. And she has unforced chemistry with Statham. Parker is committed to another woman (Australian Emma Booth), and his code of honor apparently requires that he will never be unfaithful. But when Lopez’s Leslie asks Parker at the end of the movie if she ever had a chance with him, he looks at her intently without answering. J.Lo never had a chance to snare the hero? That’s about as likely as Jason Statham losing a fight.
Opens: Friday, Jan. 25 (FilmDistrict).
Cast: Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., Micah Hauptman, Emma Booth, Bobby Cannavale, Patti LuPone.
Director: Taylor Hackford.
Screenwriter: John J. McLaughlin.
Based on the novel by: Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark).
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Taylor Hackford, Les Alexander, Steve Chasman, Jonathan Mitchell.
Director of photography: J. Michael Muro.
Production designer: Missy Stewart.
Music: David Buckley.
Costume designer: Melissa Bruning.
Editor: Mark Warner.
Rated R, 118 minutes.
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