I’m not really a fan of martial arts films. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think they are all bad. I love Enter the Dragon as much as the next girl. But my experience of the genre is often that they may have great action sequences or a decent storyline, but usually not both. And the acting is rarely as good as either.
But what I do enjoy about some of them is the sheer artistry of the martial arts themselves. As someone who grew up doing ballet, gymnastics, and springboard diving, I am often awed by the physical prowess and grace (Steven Seagal notwithstanding ) of martial artists. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, and Jet Li are downright uplifting in showcasing what the human body can do. But none of them, with the possible exception of Yeoh, are great actors.
But then really good acting isn’t always necessary either. Often, an incredibly mediocre actor can be great to watch, provided that he’s been properly cast. That is, sometimes the sheer force of the actor’s personality fits the role so well, that, despite the fact that he’s not really doing much heavy lifting acting-wise, his performance really works.
Sean Connery has made quite an impressive career of this.
All of which is why I go see every Jason Statham movie. I’m a little fascinated by what makes another former diver decide to become a movie star, let alone a martial-arts movie star. I appreciate both the degree of difficulty of what he’s doing and the aesthetic quality of it (not to mention, Statham is really easy on the eyes, even standing stock still). And so often, he’s cast very well, as directors take great advantage of his gravelly voice, his reticence, his world-weary, ironic, yet somehow compassionate gaze, to play characters just barely on the wrong side of the law. The Transporter films largely succeed because we believe that Statham is Frank. The Crank movies work because his deadpan delivery is so solid that the comedy becomes entirely situational (and thus avoids being just so many knowing winks to the audience). Given the right character, a Statham movie is really entertaining.
Surprisingly, Parker is not that character and not that movie.
Which is ironic considering the plot, which has Statham written all over it. As the film opens, Parker (Statham) and a crew of criminal types gathered together by Melander (Michael Chiklis) are hitting a state fair to steal the weekend’s takings. Parker quickly reveals himself to be a thief with a conscience, going to great lengths to make sure no one is hurt. When the heist goes sideways, they turn on Parker, deny him his cut, and leave him dead (they believe) on the side of the road. But of course, he's not dead and with the help of his devoted girlfriend Claire (Emma Booth), her also-criminal father Hurley (Nick Nolte), and real estate agent Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), he finds the ones who broke his rules and makes them pay. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Mel Gibson’s Payback used both the same character (called Porter, taken from Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark’s novels) and basic plotline. And Parker himself is virtually identical to The Transporter’s Frank Martin in outlook and behavior.
But for a Statham movie, this type of redundancy doesn’t necessarily make for a bad film. He’s the right guy in, ostensibly, the right film. But rather than playing to Statham’s talent, director Taylor Hackford both misses opportunities and forces moments that bog the movie down and make the original sin of derivation all the more obvious by comparison to Statham’s other work.
The most grievous, especially to Statham fans, is that this is not, all appearances to the contrary, one of his standard martial-arts films. There are plenty of fight scenes, but they lack that amazingly fast and precise mixed martial arts we expect from Statham. Instead, his fighting is akin to simple barroom brawling: a clenched fist turning a face into hamburger. While the fights are kept relatively short, they are still enough to remind us of what we are not seeing: Statham beautifully kicking ass.
The decision to do this may have a great deal to do with the antagonist, a largely under-used Chiklis. After all, since the entire movie leads up to the eventual fight between Parker and Melander, we have to believe that either side stands some chance of winning. Chiklis, while always imposing, is at best a brawler. So having him face off against a lightning-quick kickboxing Statham creates problems. But rather than dial Chiklis up, Hackford chooses to hold Statham back. Which is a shame. Chiklis’s always-there menace and cunning could have gone far in bridging the gap between the two. But he is given so little to do (other than yelling orders) that the final battle is hardly climatic, even without Statham’s roundhouse kicks.
Jennifer Lopez is also wasted, though not through any fault of her own. She turns in quite a decent performance as real estate agent Lesley, on the point of bankruptcy, driven to taking part in a criminal enterprise by her financial and home situation, an emotional wreck in stylish wedges she can’t afford. But aside from turning Parker on to which Palm Beach home the bad guys are hiding in, she serves little purpose. A kiss aside, she cannot be the romantic heroine as Parker is as devoted to Claire as one could ask for. And once Lesley helps him find the bad guys, she all but disappears until she is needed to be Melander’s hostage. While she does get her generous cut from the caper, Lopez’s angst-ridden character seems to need a lot more than just money to get her life back on track.
And Statham, as usual, is Statham. Playing Death Race’s Jenson Ames. With Chev Chelios’s injuries. In a remake of the first Transporter film. Set a few miles away from the Transporter 2 location. All without the cars, inventiveness, humor, Luc Besson, or martial arts of his prior body of work to save him. So unless your bucket list includes seeing every Statham movie ever, you’ve already seen Parker. Several times. Only better. Give this one a pass.
Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers