Sunday, January 27, 2013

Point Blank Payback: PARKER

On the whole, Parker is too clumsily handled to really sing like it should, which is too bad, considering that this adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s crime novel character has nearly enough pulpy energy from which to work. The surplus of it nearly balances out the deficiencies elsewhere. A great deal of the charm comes from the considerable charisma of Jason Statham in the title role as Richard Parker, a cold, clever criminal who is seemingly unstoppable and, when wronged, will charge after those who did him in with ruthless efficiency. Westlake’s template has been put to use with lead actors in films as diverse as Lee Marvin in 1967’s Point Blank, Robert Duvall in 1973’s The Outfit, and Mel Gibson in 1999’s Payback. Clearly a showcase for charismatic actors of various and diverse kinds, Statham plays this character as a force of nature, muscling through this sharp-edged yet lethargic thriller with a steely focus and impeccable timing.

It all starts with a heist at the Ohio State Fair. Parker and his accomplices (Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, and Clifton Collins, Jr.) lift a couple million dollars and get away with it too. It’s during the getaway that things go south. Parker refuses to reinvest his share of the stolen money in a secondary heist opportunity, which leaves the others no choice but to shoot him and leave him for dead on the side of the road. But, as you might imagine, he’s not dead. He’s alive and kicking, leaving a trail of stolen cars on his way to get the money he’s owed and teach those backstabbers a lesson by out-planning them and heisting their next heist out from under them. To do so, he drives right into a tangle of fun character actors. The likes of Nick Nolte, Jennifer Lopez, Bobby Cannavale, and Patti LuPone do the kind of supporting work that zips in for a scene or two (or a dozen) and relieves Statham of only some of the pressure of holding up the film single-handedly.

With a plot that twists around quite nicely, it finds an uncomplicated nastiness and suspense that settles into the right groove from time to time. There are all kinds of theoretically enjoyable turns of violence and strategy, from double and triple crosses and elaborate ruses to simple improvisatory kills, like when one character stabs his attacker in the neck with a piece of a gun. I especially liked when one character breaks into a building, hides a couple of guns, and then waits for the narrative to eventually deposit all of the characters back in the building for a final confrontation. I’m being purposely vague here, since the bulk of the enjoyment in this movie comes from the who, what, and when of the heavy plotting. In John J. McLaughlin’s script, the dialogue is purely functional and the characters only types. What fun is here comes from the simple pulp pleasures.

That’s all well and good, but the film never really came together all the way for me. I had the distinct feeling that it was a movie that knew all the right notes, but had no idea how to get the tune to come out right. Directed by Taylor Hackford, a man capable of framing a serviceable shot, but who is otherwise held hostage by the quality of the scripts he’s given, the film plays out in smeary digital photography peppered with more than a handful of unacceptably poor quality establishing shots that look like they were shot with consumer grade camcorders in 2003. The simple what-you-see-is-what-you-get framing bobbles the tone and stretches the pacing until I felt like I had to slow down and let the movie catch up. This is the kind of B-movie that needed just a bit more of a push – maybe a rewrite or two? – in order to be as tight and nasty as it was so obviously aiming to be.

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