Suits and Disguises, Yes; Acting Skill, No

Donald Westlake's character, Parker, could be worthy of a series of films, but hopefully starring someone else

Jason Statham does a couple of things well. Neither of them are acting, but there's a place in the movies for guys who look believable doing their own stunts and fights, driving their own cars and wearing finely tailored suits. Statham is usually in the deep end of the pool with a bank safe chained to his back when it comes to acting, but for an action star, he's reliable. His latest film, Parker, features Statham driving much less, and wearing both suits and disguises, so that's real progress.

Parker is a career thief, the kind of guy who's done it for so long he can just nonchalantly steal the first car with an unlocked door that he sees, without worrying about being stopped. (He swipes at least a half-dozen cars in this movie.) After a particularly profitable job goes sour, Parker vows revenge on the crooks who left him for dead after taking his share of the proceeds. Because he had never worked with them before, tracking them down takes a little bit of detective work. Mind you, killing them isn't required, because he has a sense of propriety, but it could get ugly.

Eventually, the trail leads him to Florida, where Parker dons a cowboy hat and creates a phony identity as a Texas oilman on a house-hunting trip. The San Antonio accent, as you might expect, lands a TKO on Statham. Whether it was intentionally that bad or this was simply as good as it could get is anyone's guess. The final essential piece of the puzzle is Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), a realtor who unwittingly gets wrapped up in her client's revenge plot.

Though he's never appeared on screen with his actual name, Donald Westlake's Parker character has appeared in many films over the years. The author never fully released the rights to his novels because he wanted Parker to become a series. Of course, Westlake—under the nom de plume Richard Stark—wrote two-dozen Parker novels, so that was never likely to happen. But Payback, the Mel Gibson flick from the late 1990s, is a Parker story. Point Blank with Lee Marvin is another. Actually, those are versions of the same story, although Parker has different names in each for some reason. So why does Statham get to christen Parker as a full-fledged movie character and not Gibson, Marvin, or even Robert Duvall or NFL Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown? After Westlake died a few years ago, his widow finally allowed producers to purchase the rights to the novels.

There are elements of this film that show promise. The opening sequence, a heist at the Ohio State Fair, is pretty good. Counting the escape—where things begin to go south for Parker—the whole thing takes about 15 minutes. Director Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman) launches the film the right way and paces the robbery with great precision. But beyond one intense hand-to-hand fight scene in a posh hotel room, none of the action the rest of the way answers the challenge thrown out by the film's first moments.

Hackford also injects some really bad flashbacks into his movie. At one point, we see Parker reflecting on an incident he wasn't even there to witness the first time, and in another momentum killer, Hackford forces us to remember something that happened ... I dunno, maybe eight minutes before the soft-focus flashback.

Then there's the broken law of character efficiency. This kind of thing needs few principals. Parker? Sure. Leslie? OK. The crooks? Absolutely. Revenge flicks and heist capers can't have a lot of things orbiting the central character; they get sloppy. And that's really the problem with this movie, aside from the nagging flashbacks. There are four crooks, plus three other affiliated baddies who must be dispatched (and one of them only shows up in the film's last two minutes). Parker has a girlfriend to keep safe as well as her father (Nick Nolte, constantly struggling for breath, which is sad to see). And in a subplot that goes nowhere, Leslie is constantly hounded by an adoring cop. You see how all of this could cause problems. Why are the Bourne movies so good? Put simply, it's because they keep moving forward. Parker has way too much lateral action.

Jason Statham will probably keep bouncing around in similar movies for another decade because that's what he's good at, but odds are they won't be Parker sequels. This is just too many shades away from the crap he's known for (the awful Transporter movies) and the rare occasions when he's exactly the right choice (Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Roger Donaldson's terrific The Bank Job). But there's life in the character, and he's worth seeing again if they can finally do it right.

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