By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
Parker is a former prizefighter who drives an old but reliable car, drinks too much, broods too much and is constantly getting into dangerous scrapes — but underneath that gruff exterior is a guy who will knock you into tomorrow if you’re a threat to a woman or a child. At the end of the day, you can count on Parker.
So, what do you figure Parker does for a living? Is he a private detective? A cop? An assassin? A former special forces operative who’s now living off the grid and uses his particular set of skills when the situation calls for it?
Nah. Parker is a social worker.
That’s a new one, but in the hands of director and co-writer Michele Civetta, and thanks to a gritty and raw tough-guy performance by the invaluable Shea Whigham (“Boardwalk Empire,” “True Detective”) and a fantastic supporting cast, the noir crime thriller “The Gateway” is an entertaining B-movie with some quirky twists and turns, starting with the fact Parker’s day job is looking after single moms and impoverished families to make sure they’re doing OK and the kids are going to school and the adults are trying to find gainful employment.
Set in the rougher neighborhoods of St. Louis (but actually filmed in Norfolk, Virginia), “The Gateway” opens with Whigham’s Parker making his rounds for social services, and man, it’s a tough gig. On one such visit, he finds a young mother dead of a drug overdose, and when he finally returns to his car after the paramedics have left, two punks have smashed his windows and stolen his stereo. Parker also spends a lot of time looking after a blackjack dealer named Dahlia (Olivia Munn), who is prone to all-night partying, which causes her daughter Ashley (Taegen Burns) to call Parker for a ride to school. Little wonder Parker spends his nights in a tavern run by his old pal (Mark Boone Junior), getting sloshed and waxing philosophical about life, and getting even more sloshed before he finally stumbles his way home.
Things go from messy to bloody when Dahlia’s husband, Mike (Zach Avery), gets released from prison and immediately starts abusing Dahlia and getting mixed up in some violent and deadly activities involving a local crime boss played by the ubiquitous Frank Grillo, massive amounts of drugs and some seriously dangerous cartel people. Mike threatens Parker and tells him to stay out of his family’s business, but Parker can’t help himself, he’s going to be there when Dahlia and Ashley need him. In the meantime, we have all manner of subplots, including Parker hooking up with a regular at the bar (Taryn Manning) and the introduction into the story of Parker’s estranged father (the great Bruce Dern), who was an abusive husband and parent but would like to make amends with his son in his waning years. Oh, and Parker gets fired from his job with social services after punching out a co-worker who quite frankly deserved to be punched out.
Director Civetta comes from the world of music videos and high-end commercials, and “The Gateway” has a slick, stylish look. The screenplay is dense with crackling dialogue, and the performances are uniformly excellent, with Shea Whigham leading the way in a badass antihero performance.