The brawny Jason Statham crime thriller “Parker” (*** out of ****) qualifies as uneven but entertaining. Too many characters converge in this above-average revenge melodrama. Hispanic diva Jennifer Lopez plays one of those extraneous characters in “Black Swan” scenarist John J. McLaughlin’s flawed screenplay. Cast as a divorced, debt-ridden, real estate agent, Lopez never gets intimate with her rugged “Transporter” star. Instead, she is stuck in a supporting role and lends only minimal sizzle to “Blood In, Blood Out” director Taylor Hackford’s otherwise high-octane actioneer. In one scene, she strips to her undies for our suspicious protagonist to see if she is wearing a wire. Meantime, our hero has somebody else, in an even smaller role, who attends to him after he’s been shot, stabbed and beaten up. Nevertheless, when Lopez isn’t chauffeuring Statham around scenic Palm Beach, Florida, she is meddling with his carefully laid plans the same way Lucille Ball used to interfere with her Cuban band-leader husband’s nightclub show in the “I Love Lucy” television comedy. This energetic R-rated epic follows the exploits of a tough-as-nails professional criminal named Parker who lives by a strict code of ethics that reflects his principles. He doesn’t harm anybody who doesn’t ask for it, but robbery is still his bread and butter. When an armed guard nearly succumbs to a heart attack, Parker calms him down while he steals from him.
Statham isn’t the first actor to incarnate Parker. If you’re counting, “Parker” marks the sixth time Hollywood has adapted the late Donald E. Westlake’s crime novel that he penned under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Initially, French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard changed the sex of the role for actress Anna Karina who played Paula in “Made in USA” in 1966. Lee Marvin took a bullet as the same character with the name Walker in director John Boorman’s violent shoot’em up saga “Point Blank” in 1967. Jim Brown played him as McClain in director Gordon Flemyng’s account of a hardboiled hold-up in “The Split” in 1968. Robert Duvall landed the role as Macklin in director John Flynn’s “The Outfit” in 1973. Finally, Mel Gibson appropriated the part as Porter in director Brian Helgeland’s gritty, bullet-riddled “Payback” (1999). If you haven’t seen these previous adaptations hardboiled melodramas, you should put them on your wish list.
“Parker” opens with an explosive heist at the Ohio State Fair. Parker (Jason Statham of “Safe”) supervises an elaborate heist with his four partners with whom he has never worked. This quartet masquerades as either clowns or cops, while he dons the collar of a clergyman. They plunder the concession booth and make off with hundreds of thousands of dollars. A case of arson designed to distract the authorities so the gang can make a quiet getaway concludes with the tragic death of an innocent bystander. No sooner has this criminal quintet fled with their ill-gotten gains than Melander (Michael Chiklis of “The Fantastic Four”) insists Parker chip in his share of the loot so they can finance a $50-million haul in Palm Beach, Florida. Naturally, since our hero doesn’t trust his accomplices, he refuses to join them. Melander pulls a gun on Parker, and they careen recklessly down a public highway trying to control Parker. Parker beats them up and then bails out the window. He slams into the asphalt and lays there stunned. August (Micah A. Hauptman of “S.W.A.T.: Firefight”) shoots him once and disposes of the bloody corpse in a ditch. Miraculously, Parker survives this near-death ordeal and lucks up when a family stops to help him out. Our hero awakens in a hospital as the police are making inquiries about him. Audaciously, he manages to elude them despite both trauma and a gunshot wound. He sets out to track Melander and his dastardly cronies down to sunny Palm Beach, Florida. Parker’s escape from the hospital and his improvised methods of stealing cars and money along the way is fascinating stuff. Not long after Parker arrives in Florida, he hooks up with Lesley (Jennifer Lopez of “Enough”) and sets out to find where his ex-partners are holed up. “Parker” loses momentum at this juncture, before it recovers with a suspenseful confrontation between our amoral hero and the dastardly quartet of hoods.
Despite the alluring attraction she provides, Jennifer Lopez could have been deleted entirely from the movie. After all, what is the point of having a looker like Lopez if she isn’t the hero’s romantic interest? Meantime, Hackford and McLaughlin confine Parker’s girlfriend Claire (Emma Booth) to the periphery with little to do aside from fleeing from his assailants and nursing our hero’s wounds. She doesn’t have enough time to make much of an impression. Michael Chiklis, Clifton Collins Jr., Wendell Pierce, and Micah A. Hauptman are thoroughly convincingly as ruthless criminals who leave Statham for dead on a road with a bullet in him. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about these thugs since Hackford and McLaughlin concentrate on the plight of Lopez’s hard luck character. Looking way past his prime as Statham’s mentor, Nick Nolte spends most of his time growling his lines of dialogue as if he were recovering from a hangover. One of the best close quarter’s combat scenes pits Statham against Swiss actor Daniel Bernhardt, who replaced Jean-Claude Van Damme in the “Bloodsport” franchise. For the record, Statham and Bernhardt performed their own stunts in a knock-down, drag-out, brawl. This bruising man-to-man knife and fistfight qualifies as one of the highlights of “Parker.” Clocking in at just shy of two hours, “Parker” could have been leaner and meaner had either Lopez’s scenes been trimmed or the two women had been merged into one. Nevertheless, die-hard Statham fans will enjoy the white-knuckled shenanigans in this muscular melodrama.0