The criminal mind is not necessarily gripping entertainment.
Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In 1962, Donald E. Westlake created his pulpiest character, the sociopathic criminal-of-all-trades named Parker, who became the protagonist of two dozen novels (written under the pseudonym “Richard Stark”) before Westlake’s death in 2008. In doing so, Westlake became part of an innovative movement in crime fiction: novels told from the point of view of the crooks, not the good guys. What was new in the Parker novels was the utterly cool and detached tone in which Westlake wrote about his character’s brazen amorality.
Westlake had been preceded in this approach by the far darker Jim Thompson, who reveled in the psychopathy of a serial-killer cop in The Killer Inside Me (and whose book The Grifters Westlake would adapt for the big screen in 1990, getting an Oscar nomination in the process). Thompson was followed by George V. Higgins, whose languid novels about Boston lowlifes, cast almost entirely in dialogue, dwelled not on their crimes but their essential stupidity and fecklessness.
Parker was particularly alluring because he was so calm, so smart, so good at his job: The books are like imaginative clinics in how best to commit a robbery and get away with it, and how to take revenge if someone double-crosses you. For this reason, time and again, Hollywood has tried to bring Parker to the screen. Forty-six years ago, Lee Marvin played him in an overwrought movie called Point Blank. Fourteen years ago, Mel Gibson played him in an undercooked movie called Payback. The football player Jim Brown made a Parker movie. Robert Duvall made a Parker movie. (Even Jean-Luc Godard, the most critically admired French director of the 1960s, tried one.)
None of them was very good. And now the director Taylor Hackford, whose work has ranged from An Officer and a Gentleman to Ray, has tried his hand at one—the first adaptation not only to be called Parker, but also the first whose central character actually retains the name “Parker.” He is played by a British actor named Jason Statham, whom you’ve likely never heard of because he has starred in a bunch of films you’ve never heard of, including Crank and Crank 2 (see?).
Parker is based on a later novel, Flashfire, published in 2000. Westlake set for himself the challenge of figuring out how criminals might stage a heist in Palm Beach, given that it is a small, heavily policed island whose drawbridges can be raised at any moment, making it impossible for thieves to escape. Parker ends up there not because it’s his scheme, but because he was double-crossed by the guys staging the robbery, and he wants to set things right.
It’s a good plot, and, in theory, it would have made a good movie. Hackford and his screenwriter, John J. McLaughlin, didn’t go in for anything fancy; this is a head-on, efficient, old-fashioned, R-rated B-movie with guns and splatters and bared breasts. Hackford knows what he’s doing behind a camera, and McLaughlin has adapted the book with admirable economy. But Parker reveals why every effort to turn Westlake’s character into a cinematic immortal has been doomed to failure.
The simple fact of the matter is that watching Parker is boring. He’s not witty, he’s not interesting, he doesn’t care about people, he has nothing to say. Every now and then he shoots somebody, or tells someone else to shoot somebody, or doesn’t shoot somebody (which is supposed to be a big surprise).
Reading about Parker, however, is anything but boring. There’s a lot going on inside his head. He is a study in the perversity of intelligence. He is brilliant, patient, and determined. He observes. He waits. He sets up plans with payoffs months later. He works out his play and improvises only when necessary. He’s a craftsman with a craftsman’s code. He believes in order, he only acts when things get out of order, and he doesn’t make mistakes based on heated emotion.
In other words, he’s a twisted version of his astoundingly prolific creator, who wrote something like 100 books in his career—books that specialized in highly elaborate plotting of the sort it might take another kind of writer years to work out, but which took Westlake a couple of weeks at most.
I had low expectations for Parker, a movie I very much wanted to like. That’s as low a bar as you can possibly set. Parker didn’t clear it.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.