"Parker" roars into a dull January and enlivens the movie landscape, and thank the action-movie gods, because we needed a little something to wake us from our winter slumber.
Based on a novel in a series by Richard Stark, the alter ego of the late, great Donald E. Westlake, the film is basically a heist-and-payback movie. But it's made with such skill and smarts that it stands above such eye-rolling blow-'em-up fare as Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Last Stand," its main competition at the box office.
As played by the ever-stoic Jason Statham (the "Transporter" and "Expendables" films), Parker is more antihero than hero: He operates on the wrong side of the law, but he's got a complicated code of ethics.
He will steal -- and steal quite unremorsefully -- but only from people who can afford it. If you stumble into one of the many crimes he commits, he won't hurt you as long as you do exactly what he tells you to do. He doesn't go looking to hurt innocents. But all bets are off if you don't follow directions, and woe unto anyone who dares to cheat him.
A double-cross is precisely what happens in the opening scenes of "Parker'': A crew carries out a daring robbery at the Ohio State Fair. The heist does not run smoothly -- not all the thieves in this bunch are as detail-oriented as Parker -- and after their escape, the second in command, the menacing Melander (Michael Chiklis of "The Shield" and "Vegas''), demands that Parker turn over his share of the profits to help finance the next job. "It's the score of a lifetime," he tells Parker.
Like any sensible individual who hears those words, Parker is skeptical. So he refuses and gets shot, robbed and dumped at the side of the road for his trouble.
The rest of the movie follows what happens when Parker recovers and decides to get his money back from -- and revenge on -- the guys who left him for dead. This requires him to figure out precisely what the next job is and where it's happening. The road to payback leads him to Florida and into the orbit of Leslie (Jennifer Lopez), a real estate agent dying for her first commission.
Directed by Taylor Hackford ("Ray," "Proof of Life''), Parker is not without its absurdities. Melander is resourceful, but could he and his gang really commandeer a firetruck? Patti LuPone goes a bit over the top as Lopez's super-ethnic mama, and Lopez gets stuck with a couple of unfortunate ditsy moments, courtesy of the script by John J. McLaughlin ("Hitchcock," "Black Swan'').
But Statham, not always the most charismatic of actors, turns out to be a good choice to play the taciturn thief. He looks like the sort of guy who stands a good chance of getting out of any tight corner, even if his assailant is armed and he's not. Even the people who griped about Tom Cruise being cast as the towering Jack Reacher will have to admit Statham fits nicely in Parker's shoes.
"Movie 43" -- a comedy opening this weekend -- did not screen in advance for critics. A review will be posted online at www.mercurynews.com/entertainment when one becomes available.
* * 1/2
Rating: R (for violence, language and sexual content)
Cast: Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis and Wendell Pierce
Director: Taylor Hackford
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes