Thursday, February 7, 2013

Damp Squibs: Parker and Bullet to the Head

Jason Statham stars in Parker

Movie lovers can spend the first couple months of a new year scanning ten-best lists and catching up on recent films they’ve missed, or reviewing the classics, or tinkering with their DVD libraries, or, if they don’t mind giving their loved ones cause for concern, get involved in the Oscar race. (They can even spend January happily wallowing in Turner Classic Movies – although in February, the channel limits itself to movies that were nominated for Academy Awards, and tumbleweeds blow through its schedule for days at a time.) One thing they can’t do very often is have a good time checking out new movies; long ago, a shared understanding developed between the studios and the audience that January is dumping ground for movies nobody has much hope for, and the dumping period keeps getting extended, in the same way that the start of the summer blockbuster season keeps getting pushed up earlier and earlier every year. At some point, the two periods will meet, and whoever can tell the difference between the last movie that the studios want to wash their hands of and the first one that everyone’s beach house is riding on will be officially recognized as the Antichrist, or at least the editor-in-chief of Entertainment Weekly. In the meantime, people desperate to get out of the house currently have their choice of some expertly gummed-up little action movies that give the frustrated film freak a chance to at least commiserate with talented directors who are stuck in the dumping season of their careers.

Taylor Hackford’s Parker stars Jason Statham as a professional thief named Parker, which is the same name as the antihero of the book it’s based on, Flashfire – the nineteenth of twenty-four books written about the character by the late, great Donald Westlake. (Westlake, who wrote more lighthearted crime novels under his own name, wrote the Parker series using the pseudonym “Richard Stark.”) Parker, who makes Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley look like Holly Golightly, could be called ruthless and even sociopathic, though he would probably prefer “professional” and “efficient.” He believes in doing his job and upholding his word and working with people who will pay him the same courtesy, and though he doesn’t kill for pleasure, he can get angry, especially when his co-workers or employers don’t hold up their end or try to screw him. He develops and maintains no connections that might tie him down or compromise his freedom to operate, and he does his best not to draw attention to himself. The one great movie based on a Parker novel remains the first, John Boorman’s 1967 Point Blank, in which the character was called “Walker” and played by Lee Marvin. The trim, super-effective man of violent action who plows through that movie does bear some resemblance to Westlake’s Parker, though, inevitably, what he really looks like is Lee Marvin carried to the ultimate.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin & Carroll O'Connor in Point Blank
Statham is the seventh actor who’s starred in a movie based on a Parker novel – after Marvin, Mel Gibson (who starred in a remake of Point Blank between public meltdowns in 1999), Robert Duvall, Peter Coyote, Jim Brown, Michel Constantin, and Anna Karina (don’t ask) – and he has the special honor of being the first to make it to the screen in a movie where the character’s name has been retained. Parker gets off to a pretty good start, with some crisp, fast cutting and snappy action choreography during a robbery at the Ohio State Fair. Then Parker and the thieves who have hired him take to the road and immediately have their falling out. Parker is cheesed already because one of the group showed lax professionalism: he was supposed to set fire to some hay bales to create a diversion, but he set fire to the wrong hay bales, the fire got out of control and a bystander died, and now the police are that much more interested in the group. Then the leader (Michael Chiklis) announces that he has an even better score down the road that will require that everyone defer payment for this one, Parker demurs, and is left by the side of the road with a bullet in him. After getting patched up, he follows the thieves to Miami, to mess with their operation and enact vengeance.

First, though, he has to warn his pretty blonde girlfriend and her puffy-faced dad (Nick Nolte, whose back-to-back appearances here and in Gangster Squad serve to announce that, after fifteen years spend serving his art in mostly independent and international productions, he’s ready to devote himself to building up his retirement fund) to get the hell out of town and keep their heads down. That accomplished, he has to get involved with a realtor with money problems, played by Jennifer Lopez, who must have been eager for a chance to return to the locations of Out of Sight and the last known sighting of her movie career. This ensures that, when he’s go his enemies in his cross-hairs and is about to lay waste to them using the peerless professional efficiency that is his trademark, there will be someone who can fuck everything up and thus, as the filmmakers see it, win the audience’s sympathy and provide someone to care about.

Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez in Parker
No one who worked on this picture was quite sure that a steely criminal might be worth caring about, or at least interesting to watch, in and of himself, but they did their best to provide a basis for rooting for Parker by having him say things like, “I never steal from anyone who can’t afford it, and I never hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it.” He says that to the people at the Ohio State Fair while he’s holding a gun on them. The actual Parker might agree that the sentiments are admirably reasonable, but he would also find them limiting – witnesses may not “deserve” to be hurt, but that doesn’t mean you let them live if they give you cause for worry – and, anyway, why is he saying anything to them at all? The only thing Parker might say to the people in that situation, because it would be the only thing he’d want them to know about him, is “This is a real gun.”

Taylor Hackford isn’t the kind of director who you think of as putting a strong personal stamp on his material. He’s a smart, capable guy, though, and when the material is right for him, and his entertainer’s instinct is in play, he can serve up a treat, as he did with the unusually well-acted Stephen King adaptation Dolores Claiborne, the over-the-top horror satire The Devil’s Advocate, and Jamie Foxx’s official application form for a Best Actor Oscar, Ray. For some reason, though, he’s only made one other movie since Ray in 2004, and that was the 2010 Love Ranch, a modest fiasco. He’s never seemed like a Jason Statham kind of director, so it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether he made this movie because he thought an action film would be his best chance for a hit, or because it was the best job he could get? He does revert to form, but in a mixed blessing: it’s the form of his 1980 debut feature The Idolmaker, which was built around a gorgeously entertaining lead performance by Ray Sharkey, only to go soft in its last act with special pleading on behalf of the wonderfully unsympathetic Sharkey character, who, it turned out, was a sensitive guy who needed to express his vulnerable side. At least Jason Statham doesn’t sing, thank God, and despite the movie’s compromises, he doesn’t disgrace himself or the character he’s playing, even if this Parker’s concentration on carrying things through to the end and sticking to principle seem less the result of brutal efficiency than OCD. It is hard not to feel some affection for a movie in which the hero’s snappy catch phrase, delivered before administering the coup de grace to an enemy is, “You were supposed to torch the fire bales behind the livestock pavilion!” But it’s also hard to get too enthused when a movie feels as if it’s apologizing for having delivered some of what you’d been hoping for when you walked into the theater.

Sung Kang and Sylvester Stallone in Bullet to the Head

There’s no reason to wonder why Walter Hill directed Bullet to the Head, the new Sylvester Stallone action movie; action is what Hill does, what he’s always done, what, for a few years there when he was writing and conceiving his own projects and the competition was thin on the ground, what he could do better than anyone working. Nowadays, the big drama surrounding Hill’s movies tends to be whether they’ll be released, and if so, in what form and with whose name on them. Bullet to the Head, which was first announced as an April 2012 release, was originally set to star Stallone and Thomas Jane, with Wayne Kramer directing. After Kramer was fired – reportedly because Stallone found his “vision” too “dark,” which means God knows what coming from the man who gave us the Rambo movies – Jane reportedly suggested bringing Hill on board. Then Hill’s longtime producer, Joel Silver, decided to replace Jane with the Korean-American actor Sung Kang, because Silver, whose hits include The Last Boy Scout and the Lethal Weapon series, has had such terrific luck with violent buddy movies in which the buddies are guys from different ethnic backgrounds. What all this comes down to in practical terms, at least if you see the movie at a multiplex in Texas, is that Stallone periodically addresses his younger sidekick as “Confucius,” to the delight of the large guy sitting behind you with the chain-smoker’s hacking-cough laugh.

The insane part of this is that Stallone is apparently the immovable tent pole of this project, the one thing that nobody ever thought about replacing or tinkering with. (At the same time, the smart thinking is that the studio decided to move the release date back nine months so as to postpone audiences getting sick of the sight of him again until after the release of The Expendables 2, since it’s assumed that he’s more of a draw when comes in a pack with a bunch of other guys who ought to be old enough to know better.) He plays a New Orleans hit man who is set up to be whacked by his employer, a grinning African refugee and swindler played by the magnetic Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. There are a bunch of people in between Stallone at the bottom and the villains at the top, and once the hit man teams up with a cop with whom he has a shared purpose, the “story” consists of going from one character actor to the next, with Sung Kane talking about how they’re just going to interrogate this one and Stallone silently assuming, and ultimately confirming, that, un-huh, he had to kill ‘em. One of the villains, played by Brian Van Holt, is tracked down in a sauna, so to provide an excuse for a fight scene featuring that most obscene of all rebukes to God and natural law: a shirtless Stallone. Even that’s easier on the eyes than Christian Slater, who plays Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s lawyer, and who, after a quarter of a century in the business, is still getting paid good money to do a cut-rate Jack Nicholson impression and call it acting.

Sylvester Stallone, Jason Momoa, and axes
Once again, the filmmakers feel the need to figure out how to make Stallone’s remorseless-paid-killer character sympathetic, and their solution is to have him deliver voiceover narration, in his painful, stretched-on-the-rack voice, declaiming his rules as a killer; for instance, he never kills women. The hilarious thing about this key insight into Stallone’s personal moral code is that the movie begins with him and his partner (Jon Seda) executing a man in his hotel room (Holt McCallany, of Gangster Squad and the late, lamented TV series Lights Out), and Stallone making the call to spare the life of a hooker he finds cowering the shower with a back tattoo similar to the one that adorns Stallone’s daughter (Sarah Shahi), and then for the rest of the movie, the only thing anyone can talk about is, why did Stallone not kill the hooker, it’s so unlike him! Odds are pretty good that the producers allowed Stallone to scamper off and write the voiceover material himself when he offered to help be creative, and nobody who knew how the story went really bothered to listen to what he was saying when he recorded it, and he himself is long past the point of noticing if the pieces of a movie don’t exactly fit together right.

The pieces of his face don’t fit together any better; it’s now a misshapen granite slab with what looks like a pair of thick wax lips stuck on near the bottom. At one point, challenged by a bad guy, he has to try mightily to use his features to express boiling-over rage, and, after what looks like a considerable degree of focused concentration, manages to make a couple of small, still-organic patches of flesh on either cheek puff out slightly, as if he were about to grow gills. Stallone’s face is not an instrument for acting anymore – not that it was ever a fireworks display at the best of times – and it wears out its novelty value as a camera subject pretty fast, but he’s still the more relatable of the two leads, by default. Kang’s cop blows off whatever audience sympathy he might have when he discovers that there are cops on the bad guy’s payroll and rushes to arrange a private meeting in a parked car with an armed member of the New Orleans Police Department – that’s the New Orleans Police Department – to share this news with him. If he’s just going to waste his time, why not at least spend it doing something that might offer him a halfway decent chance of survival, such going to the aquarium, smearing himself with pig’s blood, and jumping into the shark tank?

Bullet to the Head is flashier than Parker, but it’s a faded, mid-80s, direct-to-video kind of flash, with close-ups of shirtless women at the big party at Christian Slater’s place (with throwaway dialogue referring to the fact that there sure are some shirtless women at this party, so that anyone in the audience who’s missing it can decide for themselves whether to put their glasses on), and shots of the chief assassin, played by Jason Momoa of Game of Thrones, grinning demonically while hunched over with his long, dark hair in his face, so that he looks like Tim Riggins six weeks into his new job as winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. Momoa’s character turns out to be deranged and uncontrollable, so there’ll be an excuse for a climax in which Stallone and a bad guy three times his size can meet in a big open space and duel with fire axes. There was a time when the automatic response to movies like Parker and Bullet to the Head would be to say that they’re not that much better than watching TV. Now, the presence of people like Akinnuoye-Agbaje (of Oz and Lost and the more recent Cinemax series Hunted) and Momoa and McCallany and Wendell Pierce – who was Bunk Moreland on The Wire and Antoine Baptiste on Treme, and who appears in Parker in the pivotal, practically dialogue-free role of Guy Who Drives The Van – just makes you that much aware that people now require a more compelling reason to consider leaving the house.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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