There is an opening scene in Parker where the title character, disguised as a priest, is preparing to rob the Ohio State Fair when he gets stopped by a carny who ropes in the nice padre to help a little girl pop some balloons with a dart. The priest hits the balloons with the ruthless precision of the safe cracker he actually is and the carny hands him the big stuffed animal he has just won. He passes the prize to the delighted little girl, cracking barely a smile at her excited thanks.
Moviegoers may empathize with that little girl: The implacable Parker hands us our entertainment with the barest of smiles, providing reliable thrills with mirthless efficiency.
This time out, British action star Jason Statham is playing another preternaturally tough and highly professional criminal, as screenwriter John McLaughlin and director Taylor Hackford reanimate the remorseless thief first created by pulp-fiction author Donald Westlake (under the pseudonym Richard Stark). Westlake, literary godfather to the caper and heist novels of Elmore Leonard, was the author of 24 Parker books. This movie draws the broad outline of its plot from the first novel – The Hunter, published in 1962, and previously adapted for the screen in the 1998 Mel Gibson movie Payback – and returns to the well-worn theme of honour among thieves.
After the successful state-fair robbery, Parker’s accomplices insist he join them on their next assignment. When he declines, they throw him out of a moving car, shoot him a couple of times and leave him for dead. He is rescued from the ditch by some good Samaritans and makes it his mission to find his double-crossing associates and steal their big job out from underneath them. That takes him to Palm Beach where, with the help of a unsuccessful real-estate agent (a badly miscast Jennifer Lopez), he discovers his former associates are planning an impossible jewel heist.
The tight-lipped, give-no-quarter Statham is impeccable as the pitiless yet honourable Parker (though fans of the books will no doubt quibble, especially over the British accent). On the other hand, Lopez, that pleasant sex pot, hasn’t a hope of producing the tragic desperation of her down-on-her-luck character. True to his code, Parker will remain loyal to his long-time moll (played by Emma Booth), so we are offered the impossibility of romance between the leads in a manner that just seems head-scratchingly flat rather than heart-tuggingly wistful.
It’s one of several spots where Hackford struggles to find an equivalency for Westlake’s spare, hard-boiled prose. Occasionally, the director hits the right note of desiccated humour – like that bone-dry joke about unwittingly asking a crack shot to pop balloons – but often the film feels cheerless as it struggles to place the unflashy Parker in something as flashy as a 21st-century big-budget action flick. If the state-fair robbery is amusing, the jewel theft that ends the film begins to feel merely frantic, and the appearance of effort is just not Parker-esque.