Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Parker (2013) ****

They’ve been making movies out of Richard Stark novels since the ‘60s, and mostly screwing them up.  For those not familiar with the name, Richard Stark was a pen name under which Donald Westlake wrote a number of hard-boiled crime novels, mostly about a professional heist-man named Parker.  “Point Blank,” based on the first Parker novel, “The Hunter,“ and starring Lee Marvin as the Parker character, had some noir charm.  Unfortunately, it was full of distracting flashbacks, and they changed the main character’s name to “Walker.”  Years later, Hollywood re-visited “The Hunter” with the Mel Gibson movie “Payback.”  Once again, major changes were made to the story, including changing the character’s name to “Porter” this time, and Gibson didn’t fit the Parker character as well as Lee Marvin did.  “Payback” was not actually a bad movie, but it was another disappointment for fans of the books.  Even French New Wave director Godard dipped into the Stark library with “Made in USA,” which is supposed to be loosely based on Stark’s “The Jugger.”  It is based so loosely that Stark himself wouldn’t recognize the story.
I have read that the reason they always changed the main character’s name in these movies is that Westlake himself wasn’t willing to allow use of the Parker name unless he approved of the movie and the actor was on board to do follow-up films.  In light of that, I would like to say that the latest Stark adaptation is boldly named “Parker” because they finally got it right.  Unfortunately, Donald Westlake died in 2008, so I don’t think any endorsement can be inferred.  Nonetheless, they really did finally get it right.  This may be the best Parker movie yet.
Based on the Stark novel “Flashfire,”  “Parker” finds our titular anti-hero pulling off a robbery at a county fair.  The heist is successful, but afterwards his partners “invite” him to give them his share of the take as seed money for another, even bigger, robbery, and to join them in that job.  Parker isn’t the “go along to get along“ type, and the ensuing confrontation leaves his partners with various injuries and Parker left for dead in a ditch.  Parker is the kind of guy who, if you leave him for dead, you had better make sure he’s dead.  When he gets back on his feet, he sets out to get his money and his revenge.  The quest leads him to Palm Beach, where he teams up with a struggling real estate agent to take on his ex-partners and a Mob hit-man.
It turns out Jason Statham makes a pretty good Parker.  Fans of the books may quibble over his British accent, but I say just go with it.  Parker is methodical, relentless, cool under fire, and an absolute bad-ass, and Statham portrays all that quite well.  Maybe it is essentially the same character he always plays, but who cares?  He totally nails it.  “Parker” also benefits from an excellent supporting cast.  Nick Nolte is perfect as Parker’s gravelly father-in-law and partner-in-crime.  Michael Chiklis is equally good as the double-crossing Melander.  He portrays Melander not as some sociopath or evil genius, but as a crook who isn’t all that different from Parker, except for his willingness to double-cross a partner.  The best surprise in “Parker” is how good Jennifer Lopez is as a desperate realtor, always one big commission away from financial security.  She manages to make it convincing that a pretty woman from the straight world would team up with a crook like Parker.  Lopez has mostly been famous for being famous these last few years, but her performance in “Parker” reminds me of how good she was in the 1998 film “Out of Sight.”
Now for the bad news.  “Parker” bombed at the box office.  For some reason, the movie didn’t connect with critics or audiences.  I loved the film, but it isn’t like a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino film, where an outrageous mix of violence and humor helps the movie break out.  “Parker” is the kind of well-done, straightforward crime thriller that needs help from some star power to gain an audience.  In this case, I imagine Jason Statham fans were put off by seeing Jennifer Lopez on the poster, and Jennifer Lopez fans weren’t looking to watch an action movie.  In any case, I don’t expect to see Jason Statham reprise the Parker role, which is a shame.  At least we have “Parker,” which in my mind makes up for a lot of sketchy Richard Stark adaptations over the years.

4 stars out of 5

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