PARKER (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Taylor Hackford, 2013
There was this old college movie friend of mine who got sick a few years back. He discovered he had terminal cancer and not too much tine left. When he found it out, he told a few other friends that he intended to get started immediately re-reading all of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe detective novels. After that, he intended to re-read all of Richard Stark’s “Parker” books — “Richard Stark” being the pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake on a series of crime novels about n hard-boiled. outlaw named Parker.
Have you seen the great film neo-noir Point Blank, with Lee Marvin as a vengeful killer named Walker? That’s Parker. Have you seen — and there’s no reason you should — Mel Gibson in Payback, as a bad-mouthed, vengeful hard guy named Porter? That’s Parker too. (Stark, or Westlake, didn’t like his character’s name being over-used.) Both movies, by the way, are adaptations of the Stark book The Hunter, in which Parker is double-crossed by a guy in the mob and takes them all on: one by bloody one.
Parker is also the ruthless anti-hero in a violent new neo-noir called, appropriately Parker — and this time the character is played by that tough Brit from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Jason Statham. Like the Walker Lee Marvin played in Point Blank, this Parker is an ultra-hard-boiled gunman involved in a heist where his partners double-cross him and leave him for dead — and he goes after them all. In Point Blank Parker’s targets were mostly establishment-looking crooks, including the pre-Archie Bunker Carroll O’Connor as a baby fat real-estate type with a pool. Here, they’re mostly creeps and killers operating in West Palm Beach who look like thugs with money — including Michael Chiklis, who once played John Belushi in the film of “Wired” and who here impersonates a bald mean murderous tubbo named Melander.
Like Marvin in Point Blank, Statham has a sexy femme sidekick. Marvin had leggy Angie Dickinson and Statham has more-than-leggy Jennifer Lopez as Leslie, a real-estate agent without any baby fat (as she proudly demonstrates). Leslie also has a blabbermouth Latina mama named Ascension played by Patti Lupone. (I have no objection to this kind of anti-Evita casting, but couldn’t they have given Patti a song? Or a hum? “Don’t Cry for Me, West Palm Beach?“
The movie’s one-against-a-bunch plot is very similar to Point Blank or to The Hunter or Payday, but since I haven’t read “Flashfire,” the Stark book on which it’s based, I have no idea how close it is to its alleged source. In any case, it’s a revenge fantasy and one of the more well-used and often-recycled ones — and it works fairly well here, though not perfectly. That’s largely because we don‘t want J-Lo to be playing second fiddle to Parker’s mentor Hurley’s (Nick Nolte) stand-up daughter Claire (Emma Booth), especially when Lopez has the bigger part. Instead of Parker, it’s Bobby Cannavale as a cop-on-the make named Jake who keeps hitting on her.
Also the last action scene, a heist with explosions, is unimaginative and wildly, unfunnily implausible and doesn’t play very well, especially compared to the movie’s rousing, very good, Charley Varrick-style opening scene — : a complex Killing-style robbery at the Ohio State Fair, complete with clown suits and pig races, where Parker is disguised as a priest and where his fellow robbers end up bashing him and taking his share, leaving him for dead, and expecting to get way with it. If they’d ever seen Point Blank. they would have known better.
Those two scenes didn’t ruin the movie for me though, and I’ve seen (and disliked) a lot of this kind of show. Taylor Hackford is a smooth director, and when he has good material, he makes a good film,. Here, he has half good material and the result, of course, is a half good film.
Statham is, of course. a believable tough guy who looks like he could take a punch or two, which is why they keep casting him. I liked him in The Bank Job and in his Guy Ritchie movies, and not much else, but that’s not necessarily his fault. Statham usually doesn’t make the kind of shows that encourage quality or innovation. This movie is fairy well-directed , by Hackford — who has made some very good movies, like Ray, and also a pretty good remake of Tourneur and Mainwaring’s Out of the Past, Against All Odds, starring Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward and James Woods in the Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas roles — and Greer as, essentially, an old Jane Greer.
It’s better written than some of these shows, by John J. McLaughlin (Hitchcock and Black Swan ). It’s also very violent, which means that we get a lot of shooting and, at one point, Parker banging some hood‘s head in with a cracked toilet seat.
Does the movie encourage violence? Given the extreme and borderline ridiculous nature of what we see here — people hanging from high-rise balconies and kicking each other, and bombs going off at the start of a jewelry auction — I’d say you’d have to be a little nuts to want to emulate the behavior in this movie, especially since Parker doesn’t win J-Lo in the end. Not that J-Lo gives all that good a performance here. Then again, she doesn’t really have to.
And in any case, I think people are less likely to run out and shoot someone (or even dangle from a high-rise) after they see Parker than they might if a loaded gun were lying around the house, and they got mad about something. The problem with the violence in today’s movies, is how pervasive it is, how unrelenting, how the moviemakers over-depend on it and don’t vary their game. I don’t really think people kill other people because of movies — but I don’t want to get into a knock-down drag-out on this subject, especially if there’s a loaded gun sitting around the house.
Some of you may be wondering if my friend Mark died happy after reading all that Raymond Chandler and all that Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake). I honestly don’t know. I hope so. But then I don’t really think anybody dies happy, and I‘ve watched a few people die. The major thing you can do when it happens is to be there — and to hope when you’re dying (and you will) that there’s somebody to talk to you and get you a copy of “The Hunter” or “Farewell, My Lovely” or even “War and Peace” if you want one. It’d help if she looked like J-Lo. But in the end it really doesn’t matter.