Parker: Rough Guide to a Rough Guy
In George A. Romero's deeply silly 1993 Stephen King adaptation The Dark Half, Timothy Hutton stars as Thad Beaumont, a writer whose highbrow pretensions don't pay the bills. When Thad needs to make a quick buck, then, he seals himself into his study and grinds out a nihilistic thriller to be released under the pseudonym "George Stark," an alter ego that soon literally comes to haunt him.
The inspiration for The Dark Half was the "outing" of King's pseudonym, Richard Bachman, but the name "George Stark" also nods to Richard Stark, author of the book series starring a pitiless career criminal named, simply, Parker. Parker is shrewd, methodical, monomaniacal, a lone-wolf independent operator, working outside the auspices of corporatized crime, variously the Organization or the Outfit. More than anything else, readers respond to Parker's independence, though it's made possible only by his being a monster of self-regulation — Parker's designs to get what he feels is coming to him are never ruffled by tender feeling or conscience. Played by Jason Statham, Stark's Parker will be coming to screens this Friday for the first time — and also the eighth ... but more on that later.
Richard Stark, like Richard Bachman, never existed. The name was the best-loved of several sobriquets employed by the prolific New York author Donald Edwin Westlake. Stark gave Westlake his first successes, though Westlake soon became famous writing crime fiction under his own name, notably comic capers illustrating Murphy's Law in effect. Westlake was also a successful screenwriter, not surprising given his no-sweat ingenuity with plotting. His credits include 1987's The Stepfather, a thriller starring Terry O'Quinn as a sweet would-be family man who, thanks to a Bluebeard impulse, keeps making a widower of himself — the split personality strikes again!
Parker first appeared in The Hunter, a 1962 Pocket Books paperback, going after a criminal cohort who'd grabbed his cut from a job and left him for dead. This was a couple of years before a film antihero with something like Parker's mercenary credo appeared, in Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. Westlake completed 16 Parker novels before taking a hiatus with 1974's Butcher's Moon, then eight more beginning with 1997's Comeback. Westlake's prose when writing as Stark is spare, skeletal and, yes, stark. The books can be read in the time it takes to do a load of laundry, but they stay with you for years.
The Statham film is based on the 19th Parker novel, 2000's Miami-set Flashfire. It was not screened in advance, which means that distributor FilmDistrict does not believe its qualities will be evident to critics. Given what studios do boast of — FilmDistrict proudly screened Red Dawn — this means nothing. Parker's director, Taylor Hackford, is a proficient craftsman, however, and Statham has shown the mean cunning and wolverine ferocity requisite to the part.
Stark's descriptions of his antihero are sparing, but we know that Parker has big, veiny strangler's hands, and that he is around 40 — young enough to be dangerous, old enough to be wary. Westlake has said that he pictured Parker looking something like Jack Palance. The Canadian comic artist Darwyn Cooke, whose forthcoming illustrated Slayground will be his fifth book in his Richard Stark's Parker series, draws Parker with outcropping cheekbones close to the "chipped chunk of concrete" Stark describes in the first novel.
Parker has never been an Englishman before, but he has been black — Jim Brown, too gentle in 1968's wasted opportunity The Split — and (sort of) a 25-year-old Danish girl. Made in U.S.A. (1996), with a trench-coated Anna Karina in the lead, is ostensibly based on Stark's The Jugger, though it's really but one element in Jean-Luc Godard's mulligan stew of American pulp references. (This would not be the last Gallic Parker. Alain Cavalier's 1967 Mise à sac has its partisans, though it's practically impossible to see.)
Made in U.S.A. might technically be the first Parker adaptation, but John Boorman's '67 Point Blank, an angular Panavision classic with Lee Marvin, is justly the most famous. From the resounding, implacable clack of Marvin's shoes as he stomps through LAX after what's owed him, the film moves like a bloodhound on the scent. The Hunter, Point Blank's source, was also tapped for Brian Helgeland's 1999 Payback. Payback's tagline read "Get Ready to Root for the Bad Guy," but Paramount protested on seeing just how badly star Mel Gibson came across; they re-shot the third act then added humanizing voiceover. (Helgeland's version is available as Payback: Straight Up, the rare director's cut that's shorter than the theatrical version.)
It's easy to see why Westlake's favorite Parker was Robert Duvall, in John Flynn's 1973's The Outfit. Like the books, Flynn's unglamorous film specializes in procedural detail that sticks the reader under the hood to see the nuts and bolts of getting a job together. Although cast against type, Duvall gets Parker's trudging, third-shift weariness — he's the blue-collar mechanic of crime. (All of these films, save Mise à sac, are available on domestic DVD. The University of Chicago Press has reprinted the full line of Parker novels.)
How, then, is Jason Statham is the screen's first Parker? Prior to Westlake's death in 2008, it was a precondition of selling Parker to the movies that the name "Parker" wouldn't be used without commitment to a series — so Jim Brown is McClain, Marvin is Walker, Gibson is Porter, Duvall is Earl Macklin and, in 1983's unloved Slayground, Peter Coyote is Stone. To this can be added a slew of pseudo-Parkers unconnected to any source novel: Jim Jarmusch, who can be seen reading a Stark novel on an airplane in 1994's pseudo-documentary Tigrero, has acknowledged that his The Limits of Control owes a heavy debt to Stark. Michael Mann's favored theme of criminal professionalism is pure Parker, and in his 2004 Collateral, Tom Cruise wears the charcoal suit and attitude of Point Blank's Marvin.
As with Cruise's Jack Reacher, from Lee Child's thriller series, there would seem to be a lot riding on Statham's Parker, titled in the current all-or-nothing franchise-anchoring style. Accustomed to seeing the character softened by films, Parker aficionados collectively cringed at this Parker's declaration in the trailer: "I don't steal from people who can't afford it." But no bad movie could ruin Parker. There are 24 books to prove he's not so easily killed.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.