Thursday, March 22, 2012

Who Is Parker?

I love Parker. That's Richard Stark's Parker, the professional Thief who stars in a series of 24 fine crime novels, beginning with The Hunter from 1962 and ending with Dirty Money from 2008. Parker is one of the most memorable, sharply drawn and singular fictional characters I know. He is a thief, a killer, a thug, yet more than just a protagonist he is firmly the hero of these novels, frequently cast against even more vile - or cowardly, Sadistic, double-crossing - villains. Parker is confident, deliberate, and he reminds me somewhat of another couple of fictional icons of 20th century pop culture machismo: Robert E Howard's Conan of Cimmeria and Ian Fleming's James Bond. Not that he is like them, but he is so vivid, so unapologetic and simple within himself as a character that he registers sharply and unforgettably in a similar manner. The Parker novels have recently enjoyed a huge upswing in critical popularity with The University of Chicago Press currently involved in reprinting the entire series with new introductions by some heavyweight novelists including John Banville, Luc Sante and Dennis Lehane, and it's not before time.

Stark was a pseudonym for Donald E Westlake, whose brisk, precise style is perfectly suited to the hard-boiled world in which Parker operates, filled with Arrogant mobsters, wise-cracking thieves, cynical assassins, duplicitous whores and brutal cops. There is a joy to Stark's descriptions of Parker at work, his single-minded focus and aggression, the way he attacks obstacles and scares enemies, and also a beauty in his terse but perfectly observed character descriptions.
A few of the Parker books have been filmed. Most famously, The Hunter was adapted as Point Blank by John Boorman in 1967. Westlake sold the rights to books, but he would not allow filmmakers to use the name Parker unless they committed to making a series of films. So the protagonist has a different name in each adaptation. In Point Blank Lee Marvin played Parker, here symbolically renamed "Walker" and the action shifted from New York to a dreamy, abstract Los Angeles. It's an outstanding film, yet it misses so much of what is great about Stark's world. Closer is John Flynn's tough, gritty The Outfit from 1973, wherein Robert Duvall plays Parker (here known as "Macklin") in a film which takes the central idea and a few plot elements from Stark but feels true to the source because the tone is just right. The Outfight is cynical, seedy, bleak, blackly funny, just as Stark could be.
Payback, Brian Helgeland's adaptation of The Hunter casts Mel Gibson as "Porter". The theatrical version, released in 1999, is a botched compromise of Stark's novel. Gibson and the studio supported Helgeland's vision of a true adaptation, capturing all of the characters brutality and lack of emotion or empathy until they saw the film, at which point it was taken from the writer-director, rewritten, reedited and whole scenes added, dramatically altering the tone, plot, and most importantly Gibson's character. The directors cut, Payback: Straight Up, is much truer to Stark, and a virtual tribute to tough 70s thriller like The Outfit.

What I am concerned with here is who plays Parker. Other versions of Stark saw the character played by Jim Brown, Peter Coyote and even Anna Karina. Westlake claimed that Duvall was his favourite but has also stated that he envisioned Jack Palance when he originally wrote The Hunter. The desciption in the opening pages of that book certainly fits Palance.
There is a new Parker film due for release in 2012, based upon Flashfire, one of Stark's later Parker novels. It's directed by Taylor Hackford, and the cast would largely seem ideal for Stark's world, including as it does Nick Nolte, Michael Chiklis, Clifton Collins Jr, and even Jennifer Lopez, who made a great Noir broad in a few film's before superstardom claimed her. This film is called Parker, and the title character is played by Jason Statham. That might not be quite as bad an idea as it seems. His fluid accent aside, Statham's default onscreen persona is a grumpy, deadly crook who you mess with at your peril. He's played several variations on that role, and Parker, stripped of complexity, would be merely another. I like Statham, I like the simple purity of his persona, the brutality of his action scenes, the unapologetic way he satisfies his fan-base with straightahead action films alongside the occasional more dramatic role (The Bank Job or Revolver, say).
But at the same time, he is all kinds of wrong for Parker. Too short, too English, too contemporary, too slick, too smug. While he may exude physical menace through that slow-burn simmer crucial to the dramatic arsenal of any action star, he doesnt have quite the fearsome personality demanded of Parker. Nor is he a bruiser, which Parker most certainly is; he is clearly capable of snapping a man's neck with his bare hands should he decide to, using sheer brawn.

So who could play Parker in a modern film, given that modern movie star masculinity is far more splintered and disparate than it was when Stark created the character? Many of the leading men of today are too pretty or at least not quite rugged enough for a character like Parker. Then the more actorly types would not be able to pull off the physical side of the role, which would require more than just a few months in the gym. Parker is a big man. Robert Mitchum could have played him, or Nick Nolte in his beautiful prime. There are a few stars with the requisite machismo and some thespian prowess (most of them British, Irish or Antipodean); Michael Fassbinder, say, or Russell Crowe, a few others. But something seems just slightly off in each case: too old, too thin, too short, too contemporary.

I would perhaps cast Vince Vaughn. He'd have to lose a lot of weight, but he's a big man, and back when he still cared just a little about stretching himself, back when he did riskier fare like The Cell and Return to Paradise and Domestic Disturbance he revealed a nice capacity for onscreen malevolence and threat, usually only evident in the sarcastic one-liners he injects into comedies. At 6 foot 5 inches and with a massive frame, dark hair and cold eyes, if he was Slimmed down and slicked up, he could be Parker. Better still would be John Hamm. So far he's only played slick smoothies, dapper company men in suits, but he's a fine actor, handsome, macho, and I don't doubt he could find his inner thug.

For a director to get Parker right, I'd go for either Walter Hill or John Dahl. Hill is a dab hand at hard-bitten poetry and could handle the violence and Sleazily masculine atmosphere with ease. Dahl was once the great hope of Neo-Noir, but he hasn't made a film since 2007s You Kill Me, instead working across a selection of tv shows, from Dexter and Battlestar Galactica to Breaking Bad. In his early work the pulpy Noir vibe was perfectly achieved and maintained, and I think he'd be able to understand the world Parker lives in.
Or if Parker must be modernised, then go for the real thing and get Tony Scott, whose hyper-adrenalized approach might just work for the character and his universe.

But instead we get Statham and Hackford, and that will just have to do. At least Parker, unlike many of his crime genre peers - John D McDonald's Travis McGee, say, or Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer - is still attracting the attention of filmmakers, fifty years after he was created. In any case, it's doubtful any cinematic adaptation could possibly match Darwyn Cooke's terrific Parker comics, which faithfully turn The Hunter and The Outfit into distinctive, stylish and gripping comic art without sacrificing any of the characters hard edges or nuance.