Parker Movie Trailer Irks this Parker Fan
Parker, the protagonist of Richard Stark’s novel The Hunter, is not a nice man. He beats a prison guard to death to escape a California work camp. He does this not because he’s serving a long sentence–he isn’t–but out of impatience. Once free, he browbeats his admittedly traitorous wife into committing suicide. He dumps her corpse in New York City’s Central Park, hiking up her skirts to make it look like a sex murder, then mutilates her face. Later, he threatens and beats a prostitute into revealing the location of the man who walked off with his money. Info in hand, he abandons the woman, leaving her at the mercy of the mob she just betrayed. Next, Parker stakes out the mobster’s hotel by breaking into a hair salon across the way. Finding a stylist still there, he ties her up and gags her. When she asphyxiates and dies, he blames her death on his enemies. Even when he’s killed the man who betrayed him, Parker, total bastard that he is, still isn’t satisfied.
While I’m a tremendous fan of the Parker books overall, even I have to admit that if I’d read The Hunter first, I would never have tried the rest of the series. There are twenty-four books in total, twenty-eight if you count the four staring Parker’s more genial colleague, Alan Grofield), nearly all of which are heist novels. These follow Parker and a rotating cast of other ‘operators’ through the planning and commission of a theft, along with the inevitable complications. Many of these books allow Parker to display his finer qualities, such as they are. He possesses a keen understanding of people’s psychological needs, needs he simply doesn’t share. He dislikes unnecessary killing, not because of any moral stance, but because murders attract more law-enforcement attention than thefts. Parker never betrays his fellow thieves, but is absolutely ruthless with operators who become greedy or erratic.
In The Hunter, Parker is nothing short of contemptible. In later books he operates according to a code of conduct that might seem admirable if it weren’t entirely self-serving. Just what attracts me to the series is hard to explain. Whatever it is, Hollywood has occasionally fallen under the spell of Parker’s brutal appeal.
The quintessential Parker movie is John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank. Lee Marvin plays Walker (Donald Westlake, a.k.a Richard Stark, never allowed the Parker name to be used during his lifetime) as a kind of emotionless force. His quest to retrieve his money from the mob unfolds in all it’s meaningless glory.
Less successful was 1999’s Payback, another adaptation of The Hunter. Mel Gibson, now called Porter, comes across as sort of puppy-eyed hardcase with a heart full of goo, who’s prone to irregular bursts of insane violence. As the bodies drop, he goes out of his way to rescue the aforementioned prostitute. Muddying the waters even further is Lucy Liu (who’s now cluttering up an otherwise serviceable Sherlock Holmes TV adaptation) as a comic-relief Asian gangster.
Now Hollywood is back at it. January of 2013 will see the release of Parker (the Westlake estate allowed the use of the name) staring Jason Statham. I’m willing to set aside Statham’s complete lack of resemblance to the character as described by Stark. I’m more worried about other issues. Though Parker’s new producers have dodged a bullet by not trying to adapt The Hunter yet again, the novel they picked–2000’s Flashfire–bears a remarkable similarity to Parker’s first outing. After a successful score, members of Parker’s crew betray him and leave him for dead. When he tracks them down, they’ve spent his loot setting up an even bigger job. Of course, Parker isn’t leaving without his money. Sound familiar?
Even more disturbing is Parker’s revised code of conduct, as mouthed by Statham in the recent trailer. “I never steal from people who can’t afford it,” he rasps, “and I never hurt people who don’t deserve it.” Sentiments Stark’s Parker would find laughable, or at least worthy of a fist in the face. In a way, Hollywood’s efforts to soften Parker are understandable. Most people don’t want to watch a movie featuring an uncommunicative sociopath, even if that’s how his die-hard fans would prefer it. Let’s hope that, in their efforts to introduce Parker to a mass audience, Statham and company don’t undermine the very things that make this anti-hero so intriguing in the first place.