No one goes to a Jason Statham movie seeking subtlety. As an all-around butt-kicking action king, he punches, shoots, kicks and strangles his way out of countless bad situations, basically filling the shoes of Jean-Claude Van Damme in the equivalent of the Muscles from Brussels' endless string of 1990s B-movies.
But Mr. Statham has occasionally shown glimmers of higher ambition, achieving his greatest success in "The Transporter" trilogy under the guidance of top French filmmaker Luc Besson or actually relying on his wits rather than his fists in the sharp heist film "The Bank Job." In his latest movie "Parker," however, he tries working with a top-notch director and a surprisingly strong supporting cast in a film based on an acclaimed series of caper novels, and winds up falling flat in the most surprising of ways: lackluster and confusing action sequences.
"Parker" is based on the novel "Flashfire" by Richard Stark, a pseudonymous alter ego of the late, popular caper novelist Donald E. Westlake. While Westlake intended his Stark persona to be used on more serious, hard-boiled crime novels, this adaptation still has some admirable flashes of wit via his eponymous thief's frequent disguise changes and some occasionally funny dialogue. Unfortunately, those occasional laughs are the only thing keeping the movie from being instantly forgettable.
Kicking off with Parker in disguise as a Catholic priest who leads the planning of a million-dollar heist from a state fair, it is quickly clear that he's also a con man with a conscience when he calms a panicked security guard down from the edge of a heart attack. But when his gang of fellow thieves turn on him for not betting his share of the money on an even bigger score, they leave him for dead — a move they will soon regret as he seeks revenge en route to mowing down the crime boss who hired them all.
That revenge plot hinges on Parker going undercover as a Texas oilman looking to buy a house in Palm Beach, where his former gang of thugs has relocated while planning a $75 million jewelry heist. Parker shops for a safe house as well, a move that brings a smart and sassy real estate agent played by Jennifer Lopez to his side when she figures out that he's not who he claims to be.
With a feisty Miss Lopez in fine form, a supporting cast that includes Emmy winner Michael Chiklis, Tony winner Patti Lupone, Oscar nominee Nick Nolte and direction from veteran helmer Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "Ray"), it looks like Mr. Statham is trying to move into higher-quality productions along the lines of J. Lo and George Clooney's cult classic "Out of Sight."
But aside from Miss Lopez, the rest of the talent-rich supporting cast is given little to do, and Mr. Hackford seems out of his depth in staging action scenes. As always, Mr. Statham has to fight his way out of a group of thugs seemingly every 10 minutes, but this time there are too many close-ups and quick cuts to follow the action clearly.
In fact, there are pacing problems throughout. Scenes of Parker and the real-estate agent driving around looking at houses seem prolonged, for example, while some of the action scenes are too rushed to build enough tension. Mr. Statham may have been taking aim at a higher level, but with "Parker" he's almost thoroughly missed the target.
CREDITS: Directed by Taylor Hackford; screenplay by John J. McLaughlin from Donald E. Westlake's novel "Flashfire"
RATING: R, for violence, language
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS