In the strictest terms, Jason Statham isn't the perfect candidate to play Parker, the single-minded career criminal created by the late Donald E. Westlake (working under the pseudonym Richard Stark). Statham, despite having built a career playing rough-and-tumble skull-busters, is just too much of a big pussycat.
As Westlake himself explained, Parker is angry: "Not hot angry — cold angry." Statham, with those inquisitive, cautious eyes and that slow-burning purr of a voice, can act cold, but he can never be cold. Even at his coolest, he's all heat.
Then again, you can use electricity to make ice, which is pretty much what Statham does in Taylor Hackford's jaggedly satisfying thriller, Parker. Based on Stark's 2000 novel Flashfire, this is a bruised knuckle of a movie; there are moments of unapologetic violence (including some nasty business with a scary little curved knife) that made me wince and squirm and want to leap out of my seat. Note to self: Must see it again!
The story is as basic as a right hook: Parker, the quintessential loner-freelancer, has taken a heist job that involves robbing an Ohio country fair. One of his cohorts (they include Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce and Clifton Collins Jr.) angers him by unnecessarily endangering regular townsfolk. Parker can be the most ruthless of killers, but he has to have a really good reason to take a life.
Apparently never having read a Parker novel, the thugs make off with Parker's share of the money. That sets him off on a stubborn quest that's less about the dough than about the principle of the thing; along the way his plan entangles struggling but superfoxy real-estate agent Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez), while his loyal, behind-the-scenes girlfriend Claire (Emma Booth) steps in to bandage the occasional wound.
Not as if he doesn't have enough of those already. If you've seen other film incarnations of the Parker character — most notably Lee Marvin in John Boorman's sharpened icicle of a movie Point Blank — you know that he's one of those guys who, as they used to say in the old Timex ads, takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Parker has no first name, but his middle name ought to be "That Guy Should Be Dead By Now!"
Hackford puts Statham's Parker through the paces here — even, at one point, dressing him in a powder-blue suit and an oversized cowboy hat. But there's almost nothing you can do to make Statham unappealing. Fans of the Parker novels might have trouble with the way some characters are fleshed out (or not) here: Shouldn't Claire be more of a no-nonsense moll and less of an ethereal hippie girl? And while Lopez is sunny and charming as always, her character doesn't have to be so downtrodden. She needs to be a lot more Karen Sisco (the Elmore Leonard character Lopez played in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight) and a lot less Maid in Manhattan.
But Statham, while an imperfect Parker, hits enough of the right notes to keep the movie humming. In an early scene, he calms a panic-ridden young security guard by assuring him that, if he just stays calm, he'll live through the ordeal at hand and make it home safe. He describes what will happen after that: The guy will be sitting on the couch, watching himself on the TV news report, with his arm around his girlfriend. In that reassuring rasp of a voice, Statham's Parker paints a verbal picture of domesticity that sounds like nothing a tough guy like himself could ever have experienced. Or has he?
"It'll be a good night," he tells the guard, with finality. And Parker, that man of few words, always knows what he's talking about. (Recommended)