‘Parker‘ is not Jason Statham‘s best movie, but it may have his defining onscreen moment, a perfect, succinct summation of everything pleasurable about his onscreen persona. His character, a thief and con man named Parker, has returned to his hotel room in Palm Beach. He’s surprised by an assassin; since this is a Jason Statham movie, an elaborately choreographed fight scene ensues.
The assassin’s weapon of choice is a knife and after he gets Parker in a headlock, he tries really hard to get Statham’s face acquainted with the finer points of his blade. The knife keeps inching closer and closer to his eyeball — so to save himself, Parker sticks up his hand and willingly lets the assassin stab him through his palm. The sacrifice gives him just enough of breather to gain the upper hand. That is The Cinema of Jason Statham in a nutshell: action and indomitable determination. His characters are all men who’ll stop at nothing to win; an echo of Statham’s onscreen work ethic — he’ll stop at nothing to entertain you. Even in a vehicle as average as “Parker,” Statham still delivers an intensely committed performance.
The character of Parker has appeared in other films before, although never by name. Created by Donald E. Westlake and subsequently chronicled in a long-running series of novels, Parker is a no-nonsense criminal with a strict moral code and a relentless drive to bring those who’ve wronged him to a particular brand of vigilante justice. His quests for vengeance fueled the great John Boorman movie ‘Point Break’ (where he was played by Lee Marvin) and the so-so Brian Helgeland movie ‘Payback’ (where he was played by Mel Gibson) amongst others. ‘Parker’ begins with a similar double-cross: after a successful but unexpectedly violent robbery at the Ohio State Fair, Parker’s accomplices — Melander (Michael Chiklis), Carlson (Wendell Pierce), Ross (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Hardwicke (Micah Hauptman) — steal his cut of the loot, shoot him, and leave him for dead on the side of the road. Naturally, he survives and then methodically hunts the men down to recover what he’s owed and punish them for their betrayal.
It’s not an easy task. Parker awakens in a hospital and has to break out without arousing the suspicion of cops who are there to question him. Then he has to find a way to recover from his injuries without further medical attention. Next he needs seed money for his operation. And finally he’s got to track the gang to Florida, where a desperate real estate agent named Leslie (Jennifer Lopez) suspects there’s more to Parker than the businessman he claims to be (the fact that he Statham uses a the worst Texas accent in movie history in these scenes might have something to do with it). Meanwhile, Parker’s also got to keep his girlfriend Claire (Emma Booth) and her father Hurley (Nick Nolte) safe from killers sent by Hardwicke’s well-connected uncle.
In other words, Parker’s got a lot on his plate. The way he juggles it all, while perpetually staying one step ahead of his enemies, is the source of most of the film’s pleasures. In one scene, Parker breaks into his enemies’ home, not to kill them, but to hide weapons around the place just in case he ever needs to confront them there. He’s like the world’s most violent, stubbly Boy Scout.
The systemic way Parker proceeds through his tasks will be catnip to Westlake and crime fiction fans. Directed by Taylor Hackford, ‘Parker’ is a B-picture in the classic mold: unambitious but precise, with good performances, a fine cast, and a tight screenplay by John J. McLaughlin. The one weaker link in the chain is Leslie, who is written with a bit too much melodramatic hand-wringing (and, near the climax, with a nearly fatal predilection for wildly stupid decisions). Statham and Lopez have some pleasantly awkward chemistry in a scene where Parker forces Leslie to strip to prove she’s not wearing a wire (and for no other reasons whatsoever, I’m sure), but too many scenes involving Leslie doing too much whining start to distract our focus away from where it should be: Parker and his plans.
Still, there’s more than enough here to recommend to fans of Westlake or Statham. ‘Parker’ probably won’t wind up amongst Statham’s career highlights, but that gag with the knife and the hand definitely will.‘Parker’ is in theaters now.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’