Thursday, February 7, 2013

New in Theaters: Parker


Directed by Taylor Hackford

The Grade: F

I’ve always been a big proponent of the theory that faithful adaptation of source material isn’t necessary for a film to succeed on its own terms, but Parker might be the exception that proves the rule. The biggest reason Parker fails as a film is precisely because of how utterly it screws up the titular character.

Some background: Parker is the star character of two-dozen novels by Donald Westlake (usually written under the pen name of Richard stark), most of which were written in the 1960s and early 1970s. Although this is the first time the name Parker has ever been used in a film adaptation, the character has been featured in films several times before, most notably in 1967’s classic Point Blank (where he was called Walker) and its remake, 1999’s Payback (where Mel Gibson was named Porter).

Even though both of those films were adapted from the same novel, they still provide insight into what works for the character. To start with, he’s American, while Parker star Jason Statham is not only British, he clearly hasn’t yet graduated from the Daniel Day-Lewis School of Accent Mastery. Anyone that pays attention to pop culture is used to British actors taking over American roles (lead characters on Walking Dead and Homeland are currently being played by British actors, as well as America’s three most recognizable super-heroes—Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man), but at least these actors are playing American. Statham can’t hide his accent, so he plays Parker as a Brit in the film. For any unintentional comedy lovers, there’s an extended sequence where Parker is masquerading as a Texas oil man, and Statham’s accent is so laughably bad that it’s actually noticeable how many lines of his dialogue were cut just so people could avoid having to hear it.

The problems and inconsistencies don’t end there. In the novels, Parker is a principled, but relatively small stakes crook. He isn’t exactly Danny Ocean, fleecing a Vegas casino for a hundred million. Hell, the plot of the first Parker novel involves the main character taking on the mob for $70,000, an amount that isn’t considered worth risking your life for. Parker is meant to be gruff, not terribly good looking or charismatic, not exactly a master fighter, but relatively capable in a brawler sort of way. And he’s a classic noir character through and through.

By abandoning all of these characteristics in Parker, Jason Statham and the filmmakers haven’t merely created a poor adaptation; they’ve created a poor character that makes utterly no sense. He’s a British guy running petty crimes in America (why?), he’s good looking and charismatic enough to charm the pantsuit off of Jennifer Lopez, he’s built like a professional athlete and fights like an MMA champion… Exactly what kind of character is this and why/how is he interesting? Again, the problem isn’t simply that the film is an inaccurate adaptation, it’s that the specific inaccuracies create a terrible character.

And the worst is the translation of mood. Simply put, Parker doesn’t have one. Why would you take one of literature’s great noir characters and put him in Palm Beach, Florida, walking around in the sunshine, touring mansions wearing a cowboy hat? The funny thing here is that Parker was undoubtedly meant to be the start of a franchise, with Statham reprising the role in several spin-off movies. But you can’t build a franchise around a bad character.

And it’s unfortunate, because Parker (the literary version) is a great character and Jason Statham is one of Hollywood’s most reliable movie stars. They’re just a terrible match for one another. Statham’s particular strengths as a movie star work wonderfully in things like The Transporter series, where his charm and physicality can carry the show. But Parker just isn’t that kind of character, and by trying to meet in the middle, neither Parker nor Statham can channel their qualities.

If these problems of character were the only issues, Parker might still be enjoyable, but alas, it’s the tip of the iceberg. To be blunt, Parker is a movie that manages to fail in every way possible. It’s probably the most boring action movie I’ve ever seen, which is usually the one complaint that shouldn’t exist of an action movie. It’s paced terribly, to the extent that even the climax doesn’t create any excitement. The violence somehow manages to be simultaneously non-existent and overly brutal, which is actually kind of impressive, albeit in a pathetic sort of way. The main antagonists, Michael Chiklis and Wendell Pierce (stars of The Shield and The Wire, respectively, and good actors both), come off like they had an ongoing side bet to see who could deliver the worse performance. And on and on.

Director Taylor Hackford (Helen Mirren’s husband, and responsible for Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Devil’s Advocate, among others) usually tackles second-rate material, but manages to churn out compelling and entertaining films. Here, he for some reason takes third-rate material and uses it to create a fourth-rate movie. The only thing worth discussing when walking out of the theater is what the hell Hackford and Statham were thinking with Parker, and to hope they learned their lesson. 

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