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Like Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Donald E. Westlake’s daring thief Parker has been the protagonist of a series of novels as well as several movies.
Opening today, the latest incarnation distinguishes itself from its predecessors not only by being granted permission to use the name “Parker,” but also because, under the direction of Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman), Westlake’s American thief is now unapologetically embodied by British action star Jason Statham.
Adapted by screenwriter John McLaughlin (Black Swan) from one of Westlake’s later novels, the crime thriller follows Parker as he plots revenge against Melander (The Shield’s Michael Chiklis) and the crew of gangsters that double-crossed him and left him for dead after a heist went wrong. Pursuing them to ritzy Palm Beach in hopes of ferreting out their next job, Parker becomes entangled with a down-and-out real estate agent named Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), who desperately wants in on the action.
Parker delivers an inventive twist on one of the most familiar conventions of the heist genre: Instead of watching as the protagonist plans the caper and gathers the right criminals for the job, the audience rides shotgun as Parker tries to figure out what Melander’s heist is, using his professional know-how and Leslie’s insight into Palm Beach society.
Hackford’s respect for Parker’s pragmatic intelligence can be seen throughout, but nowhere is it more evident than in a sequence in which the character moves through several cities like a ghost, stealing cars, guns and money in an effort to put space between himself and the cops as he heals from the wounds inflicted by Melander. With little to no dialogue, the director perfectly illustrates Parker’s uncompromising principles and his unshakeable will to survive and eventually get even.
And let’s face it: Statham is an artist of the action genre, working with guns and fight choreography the way Monet once painted with oils. Whether he’s using a tiny derringer to subdue a much larger guy packing a lot more heat or whacking an assassin in the head with a toilet lid, there’s an efficiency to his movements and a matter-of-fact confidence that can’t be taught. In this digital age of action, where a decent CG budget and a clever stunt coordinator can make even a delicate actor like Robert Pattinson appear like a force to be reckoned with, Statham offers Parker a considerable amount of stunt credibility.
The action sequences are explosive and include everything from a five-person gun battle inside a moving SUV to a knock-down, drag-out knife-fight in a swanky hotel room. Statham’s Parker isn’t above sabotaging his competition. He might interrogate an arrogant mob boss by choking him out with the business end of a bar stool, but he still lives by a strict code of ethics, which adds some interesting texture and complexity to the sheer over-the-top nature of the violence.
Lopez, in full-on “Jenny from the Block” mode, is engaging as a divorced woman at the end of her tether. Forced to move in with her daytime TV-addicted mother Ascension (the incomparable Patti LuPone), the dressed-down Lopez is earnest, likeable and easy to root for.
McLaughlin’s gritty script offers the rest of Hackford’s top-notch cast plenty of opportunities to shine. Sounding like a boozy Wookiee, the always-good Nick Nolte grunts and barks his way through the role of Parker’s past-his-prime mentor, and Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme), Clifton Collins Jr. (Capote) and Micah A. Hauptman turn in solid performances as Melander’s cronies. Even the small role of a cop who’s smitten with Leslie is almost ridiculously over cast with the scene-stealing Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire). It’s pretty much an embarrassment of riches.
As Parker is beloved by crime fiction fans the world over, it’s tough to say how the most ardent of Westlake (aka Richard Stark) fans will react to some of Hackford’s choices. However, the film’s fresh take on some of the tropes of the genre and an excellent cast, including a relentless force of nature in Statham, make Parker a fun and modern piece of film noir and well worth the price of admission.