By CHRISTOPHER LAWRENCE
Las Vegas Review-Journal
It’s taken more than 50 years to bring Donald E. Westlake’s master thief Parker to the big screen in all his glory.
Too bad everyone involved couldn’t have devoted another couple of weeks to working out the script’s considerable kinks.
Previous movie incarnations, ranging from 1967’s “Point Blank” to 1999’s “Payback,” were forced to change key elements of the character.
But while “Parker” is based on “Flashfire,” the 19th in a series of novels Westlake wrote as Richard Stark, it feels more like it was cranked out by a malfunctioning Elmore Leonard Plot Generator before mistakenly being collated along with some discarded scribblings by Janet Evanovich.
Directed by Taylor Hackford (“Ray”) from a script by John J. McLaughlin (“Black Swan”), “Parker” finds Jason Statham striving to elevate his career above his usual rock ’em, sock ’em fare.
Besides the British bruiser, the cast boasts some of my favorite actors — and Jennifer Lopez. (Kidding! Lopez has proven herself to be a talented actress. Those talents just don’t happen to be on display in “Parker.”)
Sadly, Bobby Cannavale, who stole the latest season of “Boardwalk Empire” out from under Steve Buscemi, is wasted as a lovesick cop. And, as one-time members of Parker’s crew, Michael Chiklis and Wendell Pierce (HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme”) aren’t given much to do besides menace and bleed.
When we first meet Statham’s Parker, he’s posing as a silver-haired priest en route to a huge payday among the pig races and pageant queens of the Ohio State Fair.
But after emptying the fair’s safes — and after an associate’s carelessness leads to a fairgoer’s death — a disagreement causes Parker’s fellow thieves to leave him for dead on the side of the road.
There was never any doubt that, following a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it convalescence, Parker was going to come after them for his share of the loot. But then things, as they often do in movies like this, get personal.
Parker soon drops a trail of blood and bodies through Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana before landing in South Florida, where he tracks his former colleagues through their property transactions with the help of a scrappy real estate agent played by Lopez.
Among the many, many problems this development causes:
l Lopez shows up so late, you forget she’s a part of “Parker.”
l Her presence — along with a few stray nipples, none of them belonging to Lopez — feels like a callous attempt to goose the box office.
l Her entire storyline seems grafted on from a different, sillier movie.
l She’s superfluous. Sure, Parker has her strip down to her underwear to prove she isn’t wearing a wire, even though there’s little reason to suspect she would be. But no matter how many times she checks out his butt or hurls herself at him, Parker is deeply committed to the daughter (Emma Booth) of his mentor (Nick Nolte).
l She and Statham have worse chemistry than a bankrupt middle school.
In many ways, “Parker” marks a step in the right direction for Statham.
The principled thief — “I don’t steal from people who can’t afford it, and I don’t hurt people who don’t deserve it” — feels like a distant relative of Frank Martin, his rule-governed driver from “The Transporter.”
Unlike many of the movies that followed, though, there’s less of Statham’s particular brand of close-quarters, hand-to-hand — and, in one cringe-inducing scene, hand-to-knife — mayhem.
Yes, he bludgeons a hired killer with the lid from a toilet tank. And, after beating an adversary with a bar stool, Parker threatens him with “the posthumous humiliation of being killed by a chair.” But, for the most part, Parker relies less on his brawn than his brains — even, however ludicrously, posing as a Texas oil man to infiltrate Palm Beach society.
“Parker” may not be perfect — far from it — but it offers hope that, one day, the quietly charismatic actor could move beyond action flicks.
In “Parker,” though, the stunt-loving Statham is still diving out of the window of a speeding van.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t to distance himself from Lopez.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at email@example.com.