If you were to line up the actors who have played Donald Westlake's hard-boiled antihero Parker for the big screen, the tableau would look like one of those illustrations of human evolution. From Lee Marvin in 1967's taboo-busting Point Blank to Mel Gibson in 1999's troubled Payback to Jason Statham in the latest release, simply called Parker, the character shifts from hulking brute to lean, quick-thinking getaway artist.
Parker adapts Westlake's 19th novel in the series, Flashfire, but begins with a premise so similar to Point Blank that it initially feels like a remake. Parker leads a team of thieves to pilfer the take of the Ohio State Fair in a tightly edited set piece with more promise than the film ultimately delivers. Disguised none too convincingly as a priest, Parker comes across as a gentleman thief.
During the getaway, his sketchy partner Melander (Michael Chiklis) reveals that he needs Parker to pitch in his percentage of the robbery as seed money for an even bigger heist of precious gems. Parker demurs, so Melander and his cohorts shoot him and leave him in a swamp. Surviving multiple gunshot wounds and escaping from a hospital, Parker recovers almost immediately and resolves to go after his former colleagues, less motivated by revenge than the desire to get the money they owe him. As Parker's seedy mentor-in-crime, Nick Nolte points him in the right direction.
Parker follows Melander's trail from New Orleans to West Palm Beach where, about 40 minutes in, he finally crosses paths with a surprisingly likable Jennifer Lopez. Deducing that the stick-up team will need a long-term hideout, Parker enlists Lopez's struggling real estate agent Leslie Rodgers to show him around. The would-be gritty action flick slows to a crawl for a montage of fancy Florida houses and scenes of Parker passing as a Texan, complete with a silly White Stetson and sillier accent. Leslie unsurprisingly sees through his cover story, assumes he's after a big score, and volunteers to help him out. Parker agrees, but not until after he makes Leslie strip to her underwear to reveal if she's wearing a microphone.
Like the Ocean's Eleven movies, Parker and its ancestors elicit audience sympathy for a criminal by pitting him against bad guys who are even worse. Parker takes too many pains to offer a softened, kid-gloves take on a charismatic, bare-knuckled character. Where Marvin was as menacing as a Neanderthal in a gray suit in Point Blank, Statham seldom proves innately intimidating, and the film tries too hard to keep him from seeming too unlikable. His Parker seems less likely to mete out violent punishment on others than absorb it himself. One fight ends with him dangling from a balcony with a knife through his palm.
Director Taylor Hackford is best-known for glossy crowd-pleasers like An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray and brings an undeniable sheen to the project even though Parker proves less faithful to the spirit of Westlake's books. The character will survive Hackford and Statham. Parker can apparently survive anything.