Parker (Jason Statham) is a career criminal who lives by a very specific moral code. He doesn’t steal from people that can’t afford it, and he doesn’t hurt or kill anyone that doesn’t deserve it. He’s a man of his word; if he says he will do something, he will actually do it. If you tell him that you will do something, but you end up not doing it, he will make you regret it. He believes that, although he’s engaged in illicit behaviors, many legitimate businesses are too, so there really no difference between him and everyone else. Because he has such high standards, are we to assume that he’s really more of an antihero than a true criminal? If we’re to take Taylor Hackford’s “Parker” at face value, then the answer would be yes. It’s not an answer I’m content with. The simple fact is, he’s a criminal, and even though he only hurts people that deserve it, he’s still hurting people.
“Parker” is adapted from the novel “Flashfire” by Donald E. Westlake (under the pseudonym Richard Stark), who wrote twenty-three other novels featuring the Parker character. It comes on the heels of “Jack Reacher,” another film about an enigmatic man with a twisted code of conduct, which was also based on one novel from a really, really long series. While not as morally reprehensible as “Jack Reacher,” “Parker” is nevertheless an unpleasant, implausible, uneven film, one that’s essentially nothing more than a glorified revenge fantasy. It also proves yet again that Jason Statham is either unwilling or unable to go outside of his comfort zone. It has been well established that he can be an action superstar. But can he be anything else? He has played it safe with an uncredited cameo in “The Pink Panther” and a small voiceover role in “Gnomeo & Juliet,” although I would very much like to see him attempt something much more substantive and challenging.
The film begins with Parker being double-crossed after a heist in the middle of a country fair. The ringleader of this five-man crew, a well-connected mobster named Melander (Michael Chiklis), leaves Parker on the side of the road, shot and presumed dead. But he survived, and was rescued by a family of kind-hearted country folk. The rest of the film is mostly devoted to Parker making his way to Palm Beach to get the share of the money he was promised. In his eyes, this isn’t about greed, but merely about making sure those responsible hold up their end of the bargain. It’s a matter of principle. This is all well and good, except that, by sticking to those principles, he’s not only being incredibly stubborn but is also hurting those closest to him. These would be his girlfriend, Claire (Emma Booth), and her father, Hurley (Nick Nolte). Both characters are essentially bit players and are given absolutely nothing to do. One has to wonder why they were included in the screenplay.
In making his way to Palm Beach, where Melander and his men are plotting an elaborate jewelry heist, Parker takes part in a ludicrous series of escape sequences, which involve disguises, the brandishing of guns, and a lot of stolen cars. Some involve direct contact with people who not only see his face but could easily rat on him once he gets away. One such person is a cop Parker shoots in the leg. We must also question the likelihood of certain events. Why, for example, would Parker break free from his hospital bed and then treat himself medically in a stolen ambulance? How would he know how to start an IV on himself? And how would he know what medications to administer, assuming he’s not simply pumping himself full of painkillers? I realize movies like this require suspension of disbelief, but there does come a point when the cables are stretched far too tightly. Perhaps if the film had worked more towards being a full blown parody, I might have let such things slide.
Once he gets into Palm Beach, he poses as a wealthy Texan (requiring the faking of an abysmal Southern accent) and enters the life of Leslie Rogers (Jennifer Lopez), a realtor specializing in multimillion-dollar properties. Divorced, broke, a borderline alcoholic, living with her overbearing mother, unable to earn a commission, sick of the unwanted attention she’s given by a womanizing cop (Bobby Cannavale), and generally tired of the abuse she takes from prospective clients, she’s desperate to get the hell out of Palm Beach. Upon learning who Parker really is, she seeks to become his accomplice and earn a share of the money. For reasons never adequately explained, she also tries to win his affections, which is to say that she will sometimes come onto him like a drunken prom date. Rest assured, Parker refuses his advances; he’s committed only to Claire, who eventually resurfaces to stitch up his hand after an assassin runs a knife through it.
Indeed, certain scenes are surprisingly bloody, so much so that they come off as a cross between a Martin Scorsese crime drama and a teen slasher film. This does not mesh well with the film’s sense of humor, which crops up when it’s most unwelcome. This would include the climactic shootout sequence, which pits Parker not only against Melander but also against the three other men involved in the opening heist. What a nasty display it is. I suppose “Parker” might have worked with a lighter tone, but even then, the casting of Statham would still have come off as cliché, and his character’s code of conduct would remain just as ignoble. So what if he doesn’t hurt people that don’t deserve it? So what if he doesn’t steal from people that can’t afford to be stolen from? Criminal behavior is criminal behavior. So much of life isn’t clear cut, but then again, certain things are very much divided into black and white.