Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Flash in the Pan

Parker (2012, directed by Taylor Hackford) is the seventh or eighth film based on Richard Stark's laconic master thief. It's the first film in which the character bears the name "Parker." During his lifetime, the late Donald Westlake (for whom, Stark was a pseudonymous secret sharer) denied the name to all cinematic interpreters. I like to think that he would have denied it to the makers of this film, too, because whatever similarities this film might bear to the character or to the novel, Flashfire, upon which it's is based, it ain't Parker. Not even close. Ordinarily, I wouldn't care. I mean, I dig previous stabs at the character in Point Blank and Payback and The Outfit. But none of those films were titled "Parker." If this was titled "Flashfire" or something else entirely, then I wouldn't hold it to the standard of giving me the merciless badass one finds in the books. Unfortunately, the title of this film invites the comparison. It doesn't help that I'm a huge fangirl, or that I read Flashfire early last year so it's fresh in my mind.

The film opens with a heist. Parker and a team of other thieves are knocking over the take at the Ohio State Fair. Things don't go exactly as planned, but the team gets away with about a million dollars. Parker's cut is $250,000, but the rest of the team, led by the duplicitous Melander, has a bigger score in mind and they need Parker's cut to finance it. The target of the bigger score is $50,000,000 in jewelry, but Parker wants no part of it. "Ten cents on the dollar," he says, and demands his money. The rest of the crew shoot Parker and leave him for dead. They botch the job, though, because Parker survives. He commits a heist of a payday loan shop to finance a new identity and tracks Melander and his team to Palm Beach. In the process, he steps on the toes of the syndicate who plan to fence the jewels. They send an assassin after Parker's girlfriend, Claire, and after Parker himself. Parker, for his part, has assumed the guise of a Texas millionaire intent on buying property in Palm Beach. This brings him in contact with desperate real estate agent Leslie Rogers, who smells something funny about Parker, because his identity has no history. She demands that Parker cut her in. Parker, reluctantly, agrees. Leslie, for her part, knows where the score is taking place and winds up sheltering Parker when the syndicate assassin eventually catches up with him. Badly wounded, Parker does what he must...

This is a film that has two basic problems: first, it's miscast. Jennifer Lopez is good as Leslie Rogers, but Jason Statham is exactly wrong for Parker. Second: it humanizes Parker. He's too soft, which is an amazing critique given how ruthless he is in this movie. But there it is. You're talking the difference between the hard-boiled of a contemporary action hero and the diamond hard of the ultimate existential noir criminal. It's a wide gulf of a difference. It's a gulf that infects the way this is filmed: we're not even five minutes into the film before we're provided with a gauzy flashback sequence in which Parker is shown as a soulful partner, almost a family man. Then Parker is shown being kind to children and even kind to a hostage payroll guard who is having a panic attack during the State Fair heist. In a word: no. Humanizing Parker is a mistake: Parker is the kind of existential anti-hero who is defined by his job. Like Philip Marlowe or The Continental Op, there is nothing else. Parker's ruthlessness is a version of professionalism. That's lacking here, in spite of lines given to him to the effect that when one doesn't honor one's commitments, the result is chaos. "I don't like chaos," he deadpan. The irony, of course, is that Parker IS chaos. Be that as it may...

Man, that first flashback scene took me right out of the film.

Parker is at its best when it sticks close to the text of the novel. The payday loan heist? That's gold. It's practically verbatim. The way Parker rigs the final confrontation with Melander and his gang? That's gold, too. Westlake/Stark saw the comedy potential in crime, and the way Parker works is like the efficient clockwork gag of a silent comedian. This film only occasionally touches that, and when it does, it's because it's respecting the source material. When it goes off model, it gets into trouble. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scenes with Parker's girlfriend, Claire. Claire is an absentee character in most of the books in which she appears. She wants nothing to do with Parker's profession. She's more active in this movie, and it tends to puncture the character. Emma Booth has far too little steel in her spine to be credible as Parker's girlfriend. Again, the movie is too soft.

I don't necessarily object to the blank faced style of this film. The Parker novels are laconic to the point of banality sometimes. Westlake/Stark had one stylistic trick with the Parker books: they all start en media res, with the word "When." This film almost gets this right. It might be better if it cut to the chase sooner. The opening heist isn't a set piece that needs to be suspenseful. Hackford tries to make it so in any case, and it's not a bad choice so much as it's an unnecessary one. The payday loan heist is closer to Stark's sensibility: it's abrupt and brutal, like a staple into the forehead. I wish this film had staged the other heists from the beginning of Flashfire, which are equally clever, but resources and time and all. Pity.

In theory, I don't object to Jason Statham as Parker. He has the action chops. What he doesn't have is the screen presence. This is a character who is silent more often than not. A force of nature more than a character. Statham, whatever his virtues as an action star, doesn't have the "it" factor of a movie star, and this is a role that requires it. Comparisons to George Clooney (who might have been a splendid Parker) and Out of Sight are almost inevitable given that Statham is often outshone by Jennifer Lopez. She actually does have the "it" factor, though it's not particularly appropriate for her character here. Lopez has better acting chops, too, which are on display in a scene where she realizes that her relationship with Parker is destined to be strictly professional. It's a good scene and a good performance. I wish there were other scenes like it, but maybe not. This film already has more emotion and sentiment than any movie based on a Richard Stark novel really ought to have.

If you want a better version of Parker, check out Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel adaptations, particularly the latest one, The Score. Cooke "gets" Parker, and unlike any filmmakers ever, he had Westlake's blessing to actually use the name.


Ivan said...

Doc M., thanks for taking one for the team. As a long-term Westlake/Stark fan, I was intending to avoid this one. I've enjoyed JS in plenty of flicks, but like you said, he sounded miscast (and the warm fuzzy parts sound awful).

I just caught 1968's The Split, with Jim Brown very good as a Parker stand-in. The flick uses Brown's physicality well to mimic Parker's toughness, and while I haven't read the source novel, the movie takes some very Stark-like twists.

And I have to say Mel Gibson's recent Get the Gringo (a title I don't like, preferring the UK "How I Spent My Summer Vacation") has a strong Westlake/Stark vibe to it. Mel's character is not Parker (too decent), but could be one of the protagonists from one of Westlake's stand-alone novels, like "High Adventure" or "The Ax" (made into a great film by Costa-Gavras!)
Okay, I've got to stop with the Westlake-referencing...

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ivan.

I'll say this for Parker: he's been better served by the movies than his lighter doppelganger, Dortmunder. I mean, The Hot Rock was okay, but man, I wanted to pull my eyes out after seeing The Bank Shot.