Friday, January 25, 2013

Parker: Solid adaptation of a literary anti-hero

Parker (2013) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence, profanity, sexual candor and nudity
By Derrick Bang

The best film Jennifer Lopez has made thus far remains 1998’s Out of Sight, director Steven Soderbergh’s slick adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel that introduced feisty bounty hunter Karen Sisco.

Parker (Jason Statham), posing as a wealthy Texas oil tycoon, accepts Realtor Leslie
Rodgers' (Jennifer Lopez) offer to show him various properties in Palm Beach. She
thinks he's looking for a house to buy; he's actually trying to figure out where some
former associates might have gone to ground ... because he'd really like to see them.
(Sisco, obviously too cool a character to drop, resurfaced — this time played equally well by Carlo Gugino — in a woefully under-appreciated 2003 ABC television series that ran only seven episodes, out of the 10 completed, before the plug was pulled. Fans wait in vain, to this day, for DVD afterlife.)

Crime thrillers appear to be Lopez’s forté, as opposed to the limp romantic comedies into which she invariably gets cast. I say that on the basis of her similarly slick and engaging work in Parker, based on an equally gritty novel by yet another veteran American thriller writer: the recently late and much lamented Donald E. Westlake.

A bit of history: Westlake employed the pseudonym Richard Stark when writing his Parker novels, from 1962’s The Hunter through 2008’s Dirty Money. The debut novel has been brought to the big screen twice: in 1967, as Point Blank, with Lee Marvin as “Walker”; and in 1999, as Payback, with Mel Gibson as “Porter.” Other Parker novels have been adapted for stars such as Robert Duvall, Jim Brown and Peter Coyote, all of whom played the character under a different name (Westlake having insisted on that, to retain control of his creation).

Although the revenge motif employed in this new film strongly echoes The Hunter, it’s actually based on a much later novel, 2000’s Flashfire. Scripter John J. McLaughlin deserves credit for a slick, polished and deliciously snarky adaptation, while Hackford gets to resurrect thriller chops he hasn’t exercised since 1984’s Against All Odds.

Let it be said, however, that Jason Statham owns this film, as is the case with pretty much everything the rugged action star embraces. His British origins notwithstanding, he’s the ideal personification of Parker: appropriate age, ideal physical presence, proper attitude. Marvin and Gibson weren’t bad, but Statham delivers just the right blend of resourceful arrogance, foolhardy stubbornness and wounded pride.

Parker’s all about commitment: If you promise to do something, you’d damn well better do it ... or risk the consequences. He’s also a career thief and cold-hearted killer, if a situation demands it: definitely a template for later series characters such as Lawrence Block’s Keller and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. And, like those other modern-day warriors, Parker isn’t a psychopath; he’s capable of kindness — after a fashion — and bears no ill will toward the innocent.

Statham nails that duality, as well.

Hackford opens his film with a slickly planned heist at the sort of county fair one finds in many American communities. It’s a five-man job, with Parker calling the shots for a crew that includes the hot-tempered Melander (Michael Chiklis), who seems to resent taking orders. This is made clear after the quintet’s more-or-less successful score, when Melander explains that this little mission was mere “seed money” for a much larger job down the road.

Parker, not comfortable with this proposal, declines and demands his cut. The others resist; things turn ugly, and Parker is left for dead.

But he isn’t, of course ... although now he’s definitely angry.

Wanting a lead on Melander, Parker gets in touch with longtime friend Hurley (Nick Nolte), who gathered the team for the county fair heist. Bad idea, Hurley advises, having learned that one of Melander’s associates — a sloppy little weasel named Hardwicke (Micah A. Hauptman) — is connected to the Chicago mob.

Parker couldn’t care less: Principles are principles. His single-minded fury does pose a potential problem for Hurley and his family, though, most notably daughter Claire (Emma Booth, an Australian actress well remembered from 2007’s Introducing the Dwights). She and Parker have something of a long-term relationship: She tolerates what he does; he, in turn, trusts her ... probably as much as is possible for him.

A few skirmishes later, Parker has a faint lead: Melander’s score, whatever it is, will take place in Palm Beach, Fla. It’ll also involve jewels ... a lot of them. But that’s pretty slim intel on which to hang the search for four career thugs adept at staying under the radar. Enter Leslie Rodgers (Lopez), a high-end Realtor down on her luck, hoping for the “one big sale” that’ll erase her financial woes ... at least briefly, if not for good.

Leslie has been reduced to living with her mother, Ascension (Patti LuPone), an arrangement doing neither of them any good. On the other hand, Leslie has at least one ally: a hunky Palm Beach cop — genial Bobby Cannavale, as Jake — who’s sweet on her. Alas, the feelings aren’t reciprocated.

The mark of a good script is the attention paid to sidebar characters, and McLaughlin rises to the challenge; Claire and Ascension, in particular, surprise us more than once. Indeed, Parker proves to have an intriguing effect on all the women in his orbit. Credit the duality that Statham injects into his performance; he throttles back from full-blown rage to unexpected tenderness in the believable blink of an eye.

Then, too, some scenes are simply choice for other reasons. Believing that she has nothing to lose, Leslie allies herself with Parker, hoping that he’ll let her have a few crumbs from whatever action unfolds. But Parker can’t afford to take chances, and his method of checking her for a wire — in case she is, say, a police informant — is delectable: a moment laced with both dark humor and smoldering sexual tension.

The various skirmishes are brutal, bloody and impressively realistic, with Parker generally enduring just as much as he delivers. Hackford and editor Mark Warner cut these melees superbly, evoking pleasant memories of classic cinema fist-fights in From Russia with Love and The Bourne Ultimatum. (And, let it be said, making Tom Cruise’s brawls in Jack Reacher look even more disappointing.)

Lopez delivers an appealing blend of vulnerability and spunk, and she remains adept at well-timed one-liners (most hilariously, a sharp reply to one of Jake’s clumsy passes). Leslie’s brittle relationship with her mother is well sketched, with unexpected moments of tenderness suggesting an actual depth of feeling between the two women.

Chiklis makes Melander a bull-headed terror: a truly scary guy who radiates genuine menace. Carlos Carrasco is memorable as a skilled forger, while Booth brings considerable depth to her portrayal of Claire. Her one encounter with Leslie is laden with apprehension, curiosity and — eventually — understanding on both sides ... all conveyed through expressions and body language. No doubt about it: Hackford has a talent for drawing subtle depth from his actors.

McLaughlin seems a bit more adept at dialogue than continuity; one detail — precisely how a ruthless Chicago assassin traces Parker to a hotel room — seems to have slipped by the wayside. It’s a momentary hiccup, probably not bothersome, but certainly not the sort of oversight Westlake’s novel would have left dangling.

I was pleased and touched, as well, by the closing-credit line that honors Westlake: a touch of class on the parts of Hackford and anybody else involved.

I don’t know if Statham is looking for another series character — having apparently retired Frank Martin, from the Transporter trilogy — but I’d love to see him return as Westlake’s anti-hero. After all, Statham has 19 more novels from which to choose: certainly enough to keep him busy for awhile.

Parker gets him off to a good start.

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