“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” The opening line of Donald E. Westlake’s novel, Firebreak, succinctly and boldly describes his finest creation: career criminal and one of the greatest villains in pulp noir, Parker (no first name required).
Under the pseudonym of Richard Stark and over the course of 46 years, Westlake, recipient of the Mystery Writers of America’s Grant Master Award, wrote 24 Parker novels until his death in 2008. Since the release of the first novel in the series, The Hunter, and its subsequent film adaptation as Point Blank in 1967, Hollywood has revisited the Parker character time and again (most recent of which is 1999’s Payback, starring Mel Gibson) without using the same character name.
These days, mention the name ‘Parker’ and you’re more than likely to get a response, “Peter?” Naturally, non-fans won’t have heard of the cold-blooded thief. After all, he didn’t suit up with Brad Pitt to score against Vegas casinos; he didn’t flee the Italian authorities and the mafia in Mini Coopers; he didn’t charm his way out of prison and into the hearts (and pants) of women to procure priceless Rembrandts. No, Parker was a killer and his methods were ruthless. While he wasn’t evil, neither was he the anti-hero that Hollywood loves to glamourise of late. Parker was, unequivocally, a villain.
More than words
Fortunately, in this adaptation of the 19th novel, Flashfire, Parker ventures into new territory with both the original name and a newfound conscience. Played by professional diver/model/black-market-salesman-turned-action-star Jason Statham, signature machismo abounds, this version of the lawbreaker is nothing like previous adaptations. This atypical Parker and his personal code of ethics and sense of warped justice allows the audience to identify and relate to his otherwise mercenary character, not unlike serial vigilante murderer on the American Showtime TV series, Dexter. Interestingly, this quintessentially macho-man-with a-heart character is accentuated with his lack of womanizing – Parker’s loyalties lie with his ladylove, Claire (Emma Booth).
While the novels are largely considered pulp noir, the film has the distinction of being neither pulp, nor noir. There’s no element of the fatalism and passive resignation usually found in noir, nor is it kitschy enough to be called pulp. Instead, Parker is more a story of Robin Hood – “I don’t steal from anyone who can’t afford it, and I don’t hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it ”– albeit a more brutal, bloodier version. Still, if you’re expecting The Transporter or The Expendables, expect less.
In the opening sequence, we see Statham in one of his most effective of disguises – a vicar… with hair. While robbing the Ohio State Fair, inexperienced but well-connected August Hardwicke (Micah Hauptman) bungles the operation with his carelessness and results in the death of an innocent. Worse still, is when Melander (Michael Chiklis of The Shield and Fantastic Four fame) denies Parker his cut, while promising a bigger score if he provides his expertise on another job. Disgruntled and unwilling, a gunfight ensues and Parker is shot and left for dead. However, as the Melander and his cronies later discover, Parker is nothing short of invincible. He recovers and swears revenge, even if it puts himself or his loved ones in jeopardy.
Parker follows Melander, August, Carlson (Wendell Pierce, from American law drama Suits) and Ross (bit-part actor, Clifton Collins Jr.) to Palm Beach, Florida, where he meets down-on-her-luck real estate agent, Leslie (former American Idol judge and global superstar, Jennifer Lopez) who immediately sees through his fake Texas tycoon identity. Promising to keep his secret in return for a cut from Parker’s successful payback plan, she helps him identify Melander’s scheme to lift US$70 million worth of diamonds, thus prompting Parker’s conniving to thieve from thieves.
Out for blood
Taylor Hackford’s direction is competent, but lacks a certain je ne sais quoi that pulpy action-thrillers like this require. The fast-paced fight scenes were, on the whole, well-choreographed, effective and violent, though limited, but editing at times seemed so frenzied that it was tough to catch up. However, kudos must be reserved for screenwriter John J. McLaughlin and stunt coordinators who were responsible for the creativity and sheer brilliance in which Parker both brings and takes the pain (toilet bowl lids, shower curtains and gun ammunition clips take ironic death to a whole new level). And of course, raving is in order for the concoction of a particularly bottom-clenching, cringe-worthy moment in a scene between Parker and an assassin sent to kill him in his hotel room (spoiler alert: it involves a knife and Parker’s palm).
Alas, the film doesn’t have much more going for it. There were some problematic editing choices, like flashbacks that cut right in the middle of the otherwise well-executed opening robbery sequence and in fact, the flashbacks were all but unnecessary (do we really need to see how Parker got shot again?). The result is an underwhelming piece of work that not only confuses the audience, but hampers storytelling as well. It does have some sexual innuendo and lighter comic moments interweaved through the action and long-winded narrative, mostly via Statham’s deadpan delivery (“It’s not the size of your gun, it’s how you use it.”)
While the script is not the worst book-to-film adaptation that humanity has ever seen (did anybody see Jack Black in Gulliver’s Travels? Yeah, me neither), it does pale in comparison to other pulp noir adaptations like Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight (it holds a 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) that also starred J-Lo. However, the similarities end there. While Lopez shone in her role alongside then up-and-coming Danny Ocean himself, George Clooney, she fell flat in a role so degrading, so unlikeable, even a two-bit starlet wouldn’t have taken it on. Maybe Jenny should’ve just stayed at the block.
Admittedly, Statham isn’t exactly expanding his horizons with Parker, either. With box-office successes like The Transporter movies and Crank under his belt, it’s no wonder that he’s on auto-pilot here. After all, he is one of the biggest action stars of this decade (even if his facial expressions only range from slight annoyance to a barely perceivable rage). On the other hand, Michael Chiklis would definitely have had screen presence to pull off a meatier antagonist role, but was denied the chance to become a truly formidable villain. Nick Nolte, as Claire’s father and Parker’s mentor/partner/friend is also a somewhat mystifying casting choice. His speech was slurred and his voice low and raspy from decades of smoking, so much so that it gets difficult trying to understand what he’s saying without subtitles. All in all, it seems that the actors didn’t want to be in the movie almost as much as the audience didn’t want to be in the theatre.
Parker could have been so much more. But it wasn’t. For an action flick, there wasn’t much action (despite copious amounts of blood). As a drama, there was hardly any edge of your seat moments. As a crime thriller, it fell short in the plot twist department. It’s nowhere near the calibre of Out of Sight, or even the cancelled crime caper TNT TV series, Leverage. What it is though, is an slightly less than okay B-movie with some almost A-list talent. In a word? Sufficient.
Had McLaughlin and Hackford focused the 2 hours on Parker and a standard tale of revenge and payback, they could’ve had an unremarkable but exhilarating signature Statham action movie. Instead, you almost wish that the studio bigwigs had echoed what Parker says to Melander when asked what he’d do to a guy like himself: “I’d kill him while I had the chance.”
Movie name: Parker
Release Date: Feb 14
Duration: 118 mins
Age Rating: M18 (Coarse Language and Violence)
Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller
Director: Taylor Hackford
Cast: Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis