Among hard-boiled fiction fans, Parker (no first name) — the protagonist of more than 20 novels credited to Richard Stark (one of the many pen names used by Donald E. Westlake) — is an iconic figure. In films, he has been portrayed, with different names and various degrees of faithfulness, by no less than six actors — Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, Anna Karina (sort of), Peter Coyote and Mel Gibson, as (respectively) Walker, McClain, Macklin, Nelson, Stone and Porter. Jason Statham is the first on-screen Parker to be called Parker, which may be one reason Taylor Hackford's new film is proudly named (you guessed it) ... “Parker.”
The movie opens with a nearly 20-minute heist sequence, in which Parker and four others knock over a county fair. The plan is executed less than flawlessly, and Parker resolves never to work with the same group again. They, unfortunately, need all their loot (including Parker's share) to set up their next, way bigger job, so they leave Parker by the side of the road without his money, but with a couple of seemingly fatal bullet wounds instead.
Amazingly he manages to stay alive. This is no spoiler, since you really don't think they'd kill off the title character in the first 20 minutes, do you? He goes on a crusade to get his money back. His betrayers are heavily mob-connected, so Parker would do better to shrug the whole thing off and find a new heist. But it's not just the money at stake. It's Parker's sense of righteousness ... the principle of the thing.
On the way to his settling of the score, he encounters Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), an unsuccessful real estate agent who lives with her mom (Patti LuPone). (Lopez fans should be prepared to wait a full 35 minutes before she shows up.) She puts the moves on him. Of course he's tempted — I mean, it's JLo, after all — but he's happily married to the daughter (Emma Booth) of an old colleague (Nick Nolte).
In the earliest of the books, Parker's defining characteristic was professionalism. No slacking, no sentimentality, just business and the pride of a job well done. He avoids hurting bystanders, even goes out of his way to ask their names and assure them that, if they do what he says, everything will be fine. It's partly just a good business practice, helping to minimize unwelcome surprises. But it's also sincere. It's not so much that he feels compassion; he simply thinks a casualty is a terrible waste of a person. He's doing his job and, since it can be done with no bloodshed, he is almost offended when it's not.
Marvin was the first genuine Parker, in “Point Blank,” adapted from “The Hunter,” the first book in the series, which also was the basis for Gibson's “Payback.” Marvin was perfect — flat affect, dead expression, a rock. Subsequent pretenders have had to compete with his model.
Statham should be almost as perfect: He's developed a similar persona in many of his films. Frank, in the “Transporter” series, is pure Parker. It's ironic then that his Parker is less like the iconic Parker than his Frank was. There are flickers of sentiment in his dealings with Lopez's character. The film is based on “Flashfire” (one of the final Parker books), which I haven't read; it may well be that, after nearly 40 years, Parker (or Stark/Westlake) was growing soft.
There are plenty of violent scenes, and the squeamish should be aware that the best of these are not the shoot-'em-up confrontations, but rather a couple of far bloodier, close-in knife fights. It's one thing to see ketchup-filled squibs exploding in a gun battle; a much worse thing to see a blade go through someone's palm.
Despite these cavils, “Parker” is a nicely done, middle-level cops-and-robbers film, not much better or worse than most Statham vehicles, which is not bad at all. It would be nice to see him repeat the role, in a sequel with a less humanistic director.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times