From “Point Blank” to “Payback,” novelist Donald E. Westlake’s Parker has been catnip to filmmakers, embodying a criminal with a code who abhors chaos, no matter how many people have to die to restore order. In this incarnation, titled after its protag, director Taylor Hackford has fashioned the 50-year-old franchise into a neat-fitting outfit for Jason Statham. Crisp and efficient, with the occasional clunky moments, “Parker” also shows off Jennifer Lopez (literally) to good effect, while mostly squandering the rest of its first-rate cast. Like many Statham vehicles, it’s an undemanding January respite from awards-bait fatigue, and should be rewarded accordingly.
Statham has a way with taciturn roles defined mostly by kinetic, close-quarters action scenes, but “Parker” is driven by the character’s commitment to not being abused — or abusing others — unless they deserve it (or in the case of those from whom he robs, can afford it). All this is demonstrated in a protracted opening caper, which finally goes awry when the quartet with whom Parker is working, led by Melander (Michael Chiklis), dares to cross him.
The encounter leaves Parker bloodied and then some, but fortunately, he heals faster than Wolverine; this is a good thing, because if the movie had to wait around for him to realistically recover from his frequent scrapes, it would roughly double its two-hour running time.
Parker pursues the gang to Florida, where he enlists a realtor, Leslie (Lopez), to unwittingly help him locate the house where they might be hiding, plotting their next score. Divorced and financially desperate, Leslie begins nosing around, and ultimately gets drawn deeper into the action, which provides a welcome dose of humanity as a counterpoint to Statham’s barely verbal killing-and-maiming machine.
Alas, the thin material (John McLaughlin adapted Westlake’s book “Flashfire,” which was written under the pseudonym Richard Stark) doesn’t leave much for the other players, which include Chiklis; Nick Nolte as Parker’s associate; Wendell Pierce and Clifton Collins Jr. as other members of the gang; Patti LuPone as Leslie’s mother; and Bobby Cannavale (fresh off his epic “Boardwalk Empire” turn) as a local cop with an eye for Leslie. In that regard, the actress participates in an act of stripping as gratuitous as it is likely to elicit whoops and hollers at weekend showings.
Statham brings gruff physicality to all his roles, and “Parker” (played previously, under different character names, by a group as disparate as Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall and Mel Gibson) is no exception. The movie plays to his strengths with considerable action, minimal dialogue and one particularly ferocious fight sequence. As for the almost-comic lengths to which Parker will go to exact revenge, “It’s the principle,” he deadpans.
Some of the tough-guy exchanges fall risibly flat, but what’s there mostly gets the job done. Appearing on “The Daily Show,” Lopez characterized the movie as the child of Statham’s “Transporter” series and “Out of Sight,” the 1998 caper movie in which she played opposite George Clooney. It’s a good sales pitch, if overly generous.
Visually, the film (shot by J. Michael Muro) gets the most out of its Palm Beach locales, shown off in a relatively flabby section where Parker gets to know the area.
Even so, with so much justice to mete out, “Parker” is one of those movies with scant time to admire the scenery, human or otherwise. And with that kind of single-minded devotion to his craft, Westlake’s antihero seems destined for at least another 50 years.