Stark Craving Fad: Parker

I was planning on writing something more substantial about Richard Stark’s Parker novels for my last update, but realised I had so much to say that it deserves it’s own post.

Richard Stark is of course a pseudonym used by Donald Westlake, who is widely regarded as one of the finest writers of crime fiction.  I recently saw the movie Parker, based on his novel Flashfire, which is number 19 in the Parker series.  Parker is not the first film to have been adapted from one of the Richard Stark novels and I would like to take a few minutes to share some thoughts along with an explanation of its cinematic precendents.

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I am going to ignore Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in the USA (1966) and start with John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967).  Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin, is perhaps the most famous and successful of all the films influenced by the Parker series.  It is based on the first novel, The Hunter, which introduced Parker the death-defying career criminal. When Westlake was contracted to write more novels, and once he began to hit his stride, he recounted a series of daring robberies, but in The Hunter the Parker character was more preoccupied with revenge.

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The film Payback (1999), with Mel Gibson, was based on the same novel.  Although Parker continued to run up against the mob, the earlier books are more preoccupied.  Indeed,  the film The Outfit (1973) is based on the third book of the series, which has the same name.  In the film, the Parker character, this time played by Robert Duvall, must face the mob (or “the outfit”) head on when he discovers they have a contract out on him.

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The Outfit and Point Blank are both superb, stylish films, but in between came another Parker-related film which is of a similarly high calibre.  The Split (1968) is based on the seventh Parker book, imaginatively titled The Seventh, in which Parker brings together a group of professional criminals to rob the Los Angeles Coliseum during an American football game.  When the loot goes missing, the Parker character must retrieve it to protect himself from his partners’ suspicions.  Blaxploitation superstar Jim Brown is cast as the Parker character and he’s ably supported by an especially excellent cast (Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland, Warren Oates).

One quick mention for Slayground (1983), a strange adaptation of the 14th Parker novel, starring Peter Coyote.  It’s a bit of an oddity, but watchable if you can find a copy.

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Besides these direct adaptations, there are numerous films which owe something to the Parker series.  Lee Marvin’s mob enforcer in Prime Cut (1972) owes a little something to his earlier role in Point Blank.  In the same way, Mel Gibson almost picks up where he left off in Payback with his nameless character in How I Spent My Summer Vacation (2012).

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You may be wondering how Parker (2013) holds up and I’m sorry to report it is pretty disappointing.  It follows the plot of Flashfire closely enough to avoid being truly dismal, but Jason Statham doesn’t make a very good Parker.  He’s not helped by someone at the studio insisting that Parker should have a concience, which goes against his most defining characteristic in the books: his ruthlessness.  That said, casting Jennifer Lopez worked well and she was excellent within her limited function.

Whoever came up withe tagline “Payback has a new name” is either an idiot or a genius, I can’t decide which.  Given that “Parker” is retitled from “Flashfire” and that “Payback” is the name of an entirely different film which was also retitled, it’s maybe a little confusing. Or maybe I’m just a huge fucking nerd.

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