02
Feb
13

Here’s Parker! He’s the best professional thief in hardboiled fiction, and he’s in a film under his real name for the first time. But is it really him?

Parker-Poster1
a review by Joe Sheer in Omaha
I love Richard Stark’s work.  If you like dark, intelligent crime fiction and a raw, stripped-down storytelling style, you will too.  Donald E. Westlake was a master of the crime story and of multiple styles, and his alias varied with his characters and approach.  I’ve enjoyed every guise of his I’ve read and the characters they created, but Stark and his perfectly amoral creation, Parker, are my clear favorites.  I like a redeemable protagonist with decent motives as much as the next guy, maybe more so.  But the cold, clinical, brilliant and animalistic crime machine that is Parker fills a very specific niche for me.  He’s not a hero.  He’s not even an anti-hero.  He’s a pure non-hero, a bad man that you find yourself rooting for because he gets what he wants and brooks no fuckery.  Also, among the lesser thieves and cutthroats who fill out his stories, at least he’s honest.

To date, nobody’s hit the Parker nail quite on the head.  The Brian Helgeland director’s cut “Payback – Straight Up” is probably the closest in tone (see it if you haven’t.  It’s one lean, mean piece of cinema).  I think a perfect Parker film is unlikely, but to my mind a solid recipe would be either “The Seventh”, “Firebreak” or “Breakout”, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Josh Brolin.  I always appreciated that Stark/Westlake allowed film adaptations, but never allowed any film to use the Parker name because nobody got the character right and didn’t intend to make a series.

So, when I saw that this new “Parker” picture was on its way, clearly based on “Flashfire”, my hackles went up right away.  How could the Westlake estate allow this?  The man’s not alive to approve it, so the Parker name should stay retired (except for Darwyn Cooke’s excellent graphic novellizations, which do Parker right and had the author’s blessing before he passed).  Even worse, Jason Statham says right in the trailer: “I don’t steal from people who can’t afford it, and I don’t hurt people who don’t deserve it.”  That’s not Parker.  Parker doesn’t care about people.  Okay, to be fair, he probably wouldn’t steal from people who can’t afford it, because they wouldn’t have enough money for it to be worth his time to steal.  And he was always careful to avoid killing during a heist if at all possible, but not because he had any respect for human life.  No, it was only because the law looks harder for a killer than for a thief.  So that one line in the trailer just smacked of a moralist streak so alien to the character that I was primed to cry foul.

 

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The casting of Jason Statham gave me pause as well, but only slightly.  I am a Statham fan, no question.  The man has charisma for days, and it is never, ever not fun to watch him kick the crap out of people.  I also think he’s a damn funny guy and his comic talents are woefully underused, but that’s neither here nor there, as that’s not the talent he should use as Parker.  My only hang-up with his involvement was the genuine skill as a martial artist he’s displayed in past action films.  I assumed that would be brought into play here, and that’s not Parker either.  Parker doesn’t win in a fight because he’s a trained martial artist — he wins because he is a strong man with a keen eye for weaknesses and absolutely no scruples.

And then there’s the problem of the title.  As a general rule, I hate titles that are just the main character’s name.  “Parker”.  To a general audience, it means nothing.  To fans of the series, it’s a source of irritation because we’re going in assuming that the character should NOT carry this name.  Even if he earns it,  “Parker” is not a good title.     You know what’s a good title? “Flashfire.”  Why can’t they just leave a good thing alone?
So, obviously I made a number of assumptions, and as we all know, doing that can make an “ass” out of “u” and “mption,” so I was determined to keep an open mind.  After all, even an abysmal take on Parker can still render a good escapist crime film, especially if they stick with the novel’s basic plot.  So I went alone to the theater, downed a shot of Wild Turkey, and settled in to see if I’d been wrong in pre-judging.
Had I been?
Yes.  Almost completely.  We open on the heist of the day’s take at the Ohio state fair.  It’s a very nicely put together sequence showing the nuts and bolts of a well-planned strongarm heist.  It’s old-school all the way, with no hacker needed and no unduly complicated maneuvers.  Parker is cold and efficient and professional, and this is the only time in the film he mentions the two “rules” listed above.  He does it in the context of keeping hostages calm, which is something Parker was always pretty good at.  He would always give a simple, logical explanation of why everyone will be better off if they don’t try to resist, and would even try to avoid unduly challenging the manhood of anyone who looked like they wanted to fight back, just to reduce the likelihood that they’d do something stupid and make him kill them.  In this sequence I feel he went a little soft, was a little too kind in talking down a hysterical security guard, but on the other hand it was effective, so I can see the logic.  In any case, the whole “I don’t steal from people who can’t afford it, and I don’t hurt people who don’t deserve it” thing was delivered in such a context that there’s no reason to believe the man means it.
The opening heist is quite a bit fleshed out from the quick pass it gets in the novel, and its venue has changed, but from that point on we get a pretty faithful adaptation.  Parker is crossed by his crew after the job when he declines to contribute his share of the loot as seed money for a bigger, riskier job, is shot and left for dead, and has to claw his way back to health, steal some operating capital (and a new car every few hours, it seems), and track these back-stabbing bastards down so he can wait out their risky second job, kill them all and take their new loot as compensation for his trouble.
There are a few deviations from the source material, of course.  Parker’s woman Claire is now the daughter of an invented mentor character, which isn’t at all needed but Nick Nolte grizzles and rasps his way through the performance with enough style that I was happy to see it.  Parker displays the odd social nicety or bit of humanity here and there (telling a sick old man in a wheelchair, who he just used to escape a hospital, to “get better”, giving Jennifer Lopez a lingering, regretful look at one point that makes us think he may have given a shit about her), but none of it ever affects his actions.  He kills those who cross him, without hesitation.  He’s quick to wound an innocent guard who doesn’t follow instructions.  And my assumption about the martial arts prowess was without merit.  Parker doesn’t come off as a trained special forces man, but simply as a fast, mean bone-breaker with an incredibly high pain tolerance.  My favorite scene from the book, a hilarious bit wherein Parker escapes assassination at the hands of a couple of syndicate hit men because a band of south Florida swamp-dwelling white supremacist survivalist yahoos happen by and lend a hand, is gone for the sake of economy, but it’s been replaced by an impressively brutal hotel room brawl to the death, so all is well.
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Jennifer Lopez, for her part, turns in a very good performance as a woman who’s been dealt a bad hand, is at the end of her rope, and has an ethical code barely more substantial than Parker’s, though without all the experience.  She’s depressed, insecure, and desperate for a change, and is more than willing to help a stranger rip off some jewels if she can get a cut.  She’s far sexier than the character was written, which is not a surprising change, but she still plays the insecurity very well, and it’s good fun watching her try to be a femme fatale and just fall flat, not because she’s unappealing but because she’s trying to seduce a man who simply can’t be manipulated into doing anything he wasn’t already planning on.
The movie wins no particular points for style.  It was well made but without much visual flair.  Parker should always exist in a dark, shadowy neo-noir world, and the presentation here was solid, if under-stylized.  For that reason, I fear it may go down in the annals of film history as a relatively forgettable bit of genre fare, memorable only to the Parker completists like myself.  This, I think, would be a shame, because it’s a competent action film and a refreshingly simple throwback of a heist picture.  The cast does very well all the way around, the story was right, and Parker deviated from his strictly amoral roots little enough to keep me happy.
Almost.  The last thirty seconds or so of this film were the only major exception.  The final scene feels like a tacked-on apology for how badass the protagonist was, and it was terrible.  It’s the sort of scene that makes you want to hit a guy twice, then bury him in the hole he dug in his basement.  Next time I watch this film, I know where to hit STOP, to keep my genuine admiration for it intact.  I have a feeling Mr. Stark would agree with me.

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