Sunday, May 26, 2013

Far more writing on the Parker movie than it actually merits

I'm a fan of the Richard Stark (actually, Donald E. Westlake) Parker novels, have been for years. I used to have several of the original "The Violent World of Parker" paperbacks, and now kind of wish I'd hung onto them, because my fondness for Parker has lasted far longer than I ever would have expected. While there may be more psychologically complex or character-rich crime novels out there - and I consume my fair share of crime fiction, having worked through every single Lee Child, several books by Michael Connelly, and a smattering of novels by James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, Sarah Paretsky, James Ellroy, Patricia Highsmith, Patricia Cornwell, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Charles Willeford and Raymond Chandler - nothing quite equals the stripped-down functionality or cold-hearted, matter-of-fact violence of a Parker novel. The Spartan ruthlessness of Westlake's (stark, indeed) prose and the lean-and-mean, action-driven narratives are a perfect fit for his titular character's way of viewing the world: an utterly pragmatic man, a career criminal not devoid of conscience but almost entirely un-emburdened by self-doubt or even much in the way of reflectiveness, Parker is sort of the ultimate goal-oriented "romantic antihero," if you will - the perfect point of escapist identification for those who feel too much the weight of social responsibility, who dither too much trying to please others, who lack the capacity to realize their goals with the necessary ruthlessness, single-mindedness, and devotion. It's a bullshit transaction, on some level - there's something suspect about the way all heroes in pulp serve to prop up the ego of the reader, by providing what is missing from life - be it sexual adventure, violence, the capacity to act on one's taboo or criminal desires, or the ability to enforce one's own private vision of what is right and proper on others (the "Bruce Willis knows best"/ Law of the Father factor). It probably doesn't say great things about a person's character, either, when their romantic hero is a criminal, as opposed to a cop or at least a man of virtue; on the other hand, there's probably some truth to Westlake's observation that being able to act out his criminal fantasies and desires through a fictional character prevented him from ever needing to try to plot a crime in real life.

In any event, there have been some great movies made from the novels in which Parker features. I haven't seen them all - I've yet to see The Split, for instance - but I've caught Point Blank, The Outfit, Slayground, and both versions of Payback. (I confess that I could not make it through Made in USA, Jean-Luc Godard's partial mis-appropriation of a Parker novel; I have yet to really find my way "in" with Godard, only having enjoyed a couple of his films). Point Blank, with Lee Marvin playing the Parker character, is probably the consensus favourite among critics as the "best film" in the list; at one point, as I recall, Westlake thought The Outfit, with Robert Duvall as the Parker character, was the most faithful to the spirit of his books. For my money, I prefer "Mad" Mel Gibson in the "Straight Up" version of Payback, since he most closely resembles the Parker I construct for myself when reading the books, seems to best capture the frustration the cold, clear-headed Parker feels with the daffy muddle-mindedness and general weakness of those around him (The whiny Peter Coyote characterization in Slayground is probably the least faithful version of the character, meanwhile; I like Peter Coyote - but not what he does with Parker in that film. About all it has going for it is a terrific, pulpy poster).

As you may already know, none of the above movies (except perhaps the Godard, which was not a permitted or remotely faithful adaptation) actually give their character the name Parker, since Westlake would not concede to having the name "Parker" used unless the filmmakers in question committed to a franchise. I had my hopes that when Jason Statham was cast as Parker in a film named, appropriately, Parker, that the use of Parker's name indicated not merely that Westlake is no longer around to object - he died a couple of years ago - but that the filmmakers (Taylor Hackford is the director) cared enough about the Parker series that they HAD committed to a franchise, and were going to try to do it right.
I had my concerns. The trailers didn't seem that promising. While Taylor Hackford has made some serviceable commercial thrillers in his day (Proof of Life, for instance), Jason Statham seems to be a hit-or-miss actor; since his Guy Ritchie days, I've truly enjoyed a couple of his star vehicles, far more than I ever expected to - both Crank and the first film in The Transporter franchise are quite entertaining, smartly-crafted genre films - but he appears willing to act in almost anything, such that there are some real atrocities in his resume - from the least entertaining Uwe Boll film I'm aware of, In the Name of the King, to the deeply mediocre remake of The Mechanic and the recent Killer Elite, which appears to steal the title of a lesser Sam Peckinpah movie, slapping it on what seemed unwatchable garbage (I couldn't make it more than fifteen minutes into that film, mind you; perhaps it gets less inept as it goes along, but I had no faith that it would and tuned out). Statham COULD be a good Parker, but his presence alone is no guarantee that any given film will be at all watchable.

Anyhow, having my doubts, I waited for Parker to come out on DVD. I still respectfully rented it - I didn't torrent it or any such unlawful thing, though I rather wish I had, now. No, I did the right thing - good for my conscience but bad for my wallet - and rented it from Maple Ridge's Little Shop of Movies today: $6 wasted, because the film is a piece o' crap. It's not a good adaptation of Parker, for one thing; Parker is presented as too much as an everyman, is given redeeming qualities completely alien to the Richard Stark series. He is shown helping a little girl win a prize at a carnival he's about to rob, then shown sensitively talking down a panicked security guard; such humanizing moments completely betray the appeal of the character, create deep discord in the minds of people actually familiar with the novels, and, most importantly, misunderstand the consumer of violent crime fiction. People who watch movies where the hero is a violent career criminal do not need or want to see him humanized; on the other hand, people who need their good guys to have redeeming qualities do not generally watch movies where the hero is a violent career criminal. (Payback: Straight Up deserves credit for understanding all of this; Mel does NOT play a "nice guy" in that film, by any stretch, and retains some of the "real" Parker vibe even in the comedic version that the studios produced, when they rejected Brian Helgeland's original cut). By trying to make Parker palatable for middle-class, moralistically inclined, little-old-lady sensibilities, the filmmakers do nothing more than make him unpalatable for the people MOST LIKELY TO WANT TO SEE THE FILM. A daft, duff move indeed, suggesting that the people responsible for this film did not have the courage for the material, and should never have been allowed near it.

Also bad: the narrative stretches out to take in several peripheral characters, presumably to broaden the market appeal of the story. Parker's lover Claire, her father (played by Nick Nolte) and a real estate agent played by Jennifer Lopez all clutter up the film, their scenes - especially Lopez's - often feeling quite superfluous to the plot, which involves a betrayed Parker setting out to even the score with the men who left him for dead. To the extent that peripheral characters appear in Parker novels, if they are given any development at all, it is because they are equally unique variants on the criminal mind, characters distinct from Parker but almost equally entertaining (one, Alan Grofield, actually got his own spin-off series, the only non-Parker novels written under the Stark pen-name). By adding all this clutter - presumably trying to give the character of Parker depth, by ensconcing him in a web of social relations, when the shallow, goal-oriented simplicity of Parker in the novels is very nearly the point of them - Hackford and company betray the extremely functional, lean-and-mean, chilly aesthetic of the series, creating narrative flab when they most need to be cutting to the bone...

All of this, of course, would be forgivable - to depart from the character as written, or the aesthetic of the series overall - if only the film that resulted were any good, but I can't say I saw much evidence of this. There are some inspired moments - the initial heist is quite well-executed, for example, despite the moments where Parker is humanized, and there's an appropriate brutality to the scene where Parker's partners betray him and leave him for dead. As he goes about tracking them down, however, in part through the J-Lo real estate agent, the pace lags, and things start to get very, very silly, as during one moment where Parker makes the real estate agent strip, to make sure she isn't wearing a wire, before he tells her his secrets. The scene takes you entirely out of the film: whether you read it as a transparent excuse to have J-Lo strip to her bra and panties - which is not how it registers, since neither Parker nor Hackford treat the moment with any notable lechery -  or as a bad borrowing from a billion other crime films, it makes no narrative sense that a real estate agent whom Parker himself has approached, who has previously had no idea that he is a criminal, would care at all about recording her conversation with him. He hasn't revealed his true business to her at that point, so unless he believes that real estate agents go about their job with wires on, recording everything just in case they should happen to stumble across a criminal... the scene doesn't even have any logic to it, is stupid to the point of being insulting, since the responsible parties (Hackford, the writers, the producers, whoever) obviously don't think the consumers of crime fiction are smart enough to notice its nonsensical nature... I had been having trouble staying awake through the film up to that point, but after the undressing of J-Lo, I couldn't bring myself to finish it.

It's a shame that the first film where Parker is actually named Parker should also be the worst (like I say, I haven't seen The Split or a couple of others, but I think I can still make this assertion; certainly given a choice between watching the Hackford Parker to completion or rewatching the less-than-stellar Slayground, I'd take Slayground in a second). If there is talk of a Parker franchise, it sure would be nice if the makers of the film read a few more of the Richard Stark novels and tried to make a movie truer to their spirit than this. Fans of the books are advised to give the Statham Parker film a wide berth; sadly, based on what I saw of it tonight, it will take a great deal to convince me, should there be a second, to give it a go.

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