Saturday, February 2, 2013

Burchfield at the Bijou: Parker versus Parker

Still too damn nice.

When the fresh-faced kid behind the box-office window offered him the matinee senior discount, Burchfield told him to go to hell.

“Screw you, buddy!” the cashier yelled. Burchfield took the ticket, spat on the window and entered the theater lobby.

Burchfield stopped at the snack counter, paid $10.00 for a small Coke and got back $10.00. The scotch-tape-on-the-fingertips trick still worked.

Then he stomped out his e-cigarette, spat on the door leading to a showing of Les Misérables and strode into the theater.

The theater was small, had a single aisle down the middle. It was the way Burchfield liked it. Empty. Like his mind. In the night. While watching American Idol with the sound off. Or sitting in the dark, thinking of nothing.

Two more guys came in. That was all. One sat right across the aisle from Burchfield. Their eyes met in the dark. Burchfield’s hand moved toward the holster under his coat. The guy got up, moved five rows down.

When you sit in a near-empty theater with Burchfield, you’d better sit in front of him. So he can keep an eye on you.

Then the commercials and coming attractions started. It had taken years for Burchfield to stop himself from marching into the projection booth and threatening the projectionist to hurry it up or else. Now it was pointless. Everything was run by computers. The machines just sat and blinked when he barked and waved his gun at them.

He could have shot the machine, shot it dead, but then he would have missed the entire movie. In the end, he decided, commercials were the cost of doing business.

Finally, the silk red curtain rose like a whore coyly lifting her skirt. The movie began.

The movie was called Parker. It starred Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, Bobby Cannavale, and Nick Nolte. It was directed by Taylor Hackford. The picture was adapted from a novel called Flashfire by Richard Stark. It was the first movie to be adapted from a Stark novel since Stark vanished forever on New Year’s Eve, 2008.

It was the first movie from a Stark novel to use Parker’s name, instead of making one up, usual a weak, stupid-sounding name like “Walker”, “Porter”, or “Dortmunder.”

It sounded like a promise that the Parker in Parker would be just like the one in Stark’s twenty-four Parker novels. It would capture the spirit of original character. Parker fans would know they would get the same thing. The true Parker.

But it wasn’t. This Parker, played with a British accent by Statham, smiled when he didn’t have to. He bragged about his ethics (as though marketing himself as the Thief You’d Most Want to Be Robbed By.) He held therapy sessions with his robbery victims. He was sincerely nice to sick people. He smiled at Jennifer Lopez’s mother. He gave away the treasure he worked so hard to steal. He struck fear only in the bad guys, in no one else, least of all Burchfield.

Worst of all, Parker made friends with a dog. A tiny, yapping dog.

As the dog wagged its tail and barked and barked and barked, Burchfield recalled wise counsel from a famous comedian: “If you can kick it for distance, it’s not a dog.”

Burchfield leaned forward, anticipating the moment when Parker would kick the dog through some convenient goalposts. But the moment never came.

This Parker also killed many many more people than the literary Parker would have found necessary to complete his business. He was a very unbusiness-like Parker.

Burchfield was no touchy, obsessive fan boy. He got it that every movie from a novel had to stand on its own as a movie. Settings have to be changed. Plots have to be reworked and telescoped, characters, even good ones, have to be put down, brutally. In the case of a bad or mediocre book, Burchfield didn’t give a damn what they did, so long as the movie was good.

But a good book has a spirit to it. That’s why they want to make it into a movie in the first place—or should. A good movie adaptation of a good book may change a lot, but it keeps that spirit, makes it glow in the dark, even if it is a fire from Hell. The reason they decided to make a movie of the book survives and prospers. Look at The Maltese Falcon.

The spirit of Flashfire, of the Richard Stark novels, Parker himself, wasn’t the Parker of Parker. Probably couldn’t be helped. It was an expensive movie. Nowadays, the more expensive the movie, the wider the audience has to be to pay for it. The knife must be dulled, the edges softened. Otherwise, not enough people will come.

Hence the warm, sincere smiles, the moral vanity, the giving of money away.

And the dog. The damn stupid dog.

Not that Burchfield thought Parker a bad bad movie. He thought it was a well-made pulp crime movie typical of today: glossy, loud, clangorous, every punch ringing like a hammer on a bell, blood running like cherry syrup. Except for Ms. Lopez, none of the other actors and their characters were given much to do, besides curse and yell and then fall down and bleed all over.

At one point, Burchfield worried that Nick Nolte would burst into song. Good thing that didn’t happen.

Sometimes, it was funny as though another writer had applied his pen from somewhere. It became more like something written by that writer.

People who knew little or nothing about Parker wouldn’t know, wouldn’t care, would actually like this Parker. They’d think they were seeing the real Parker. They’d think it was the same thing.

Richard Stark and Parker, in their cold-eyed spirit, may not be at home in a big-budget A-movie. Parker needs an independent B-picture, or an HBO/Showtime movie, to be Parker, pure and simple, this ornery emblem of unbridled criminality.

“Who the hell’s Donald E. Westlake?” Burchfield growled as the credits started to roll. He rose, spat on the carpet, and strode grimly up the aisle. At the door, the usher stopped him, told him that it was against the law to spit on the floor.

So what?” Burchfield said.

He left the usher with his feet sticking out of the trash bin. He hurried home, made it just in time to watch David Suchet as Poirot on public television.

At least they nailed him.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield recently finished writing Butchertown, a 1920s gangland shoot-'em-up. He also “friends” on Facebook and tweets on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


David Plante said...

Burchfield obviously doesn't know Dortmunder is his own crook, not a Parker alias.;-) lol

Nice review. I don't agree, but I enjoyed your attempt at writing in the style of my all-time favorite writer.

I really, really don't understand the dislike and sometimes even manic rage the movie has aroused in the Parkerati. I thought it was pretty well done.

I watched Point Blank the other day for God knows how many times, and there's no question the Statham adaptation is closer to what Westlake created than the Marvin one. Marvin gets molested by John Vernon, walks around the docks with his retarded gang of perverts with an idiotic grin plastered on his kisser chasing after Lynne, He, Lynne and Vernon ride around in a car while Lynn takes Parker's sunglasses off his mug and puts them on Vernon--so cute and fuzzy. I hear "People Let Me Tell You 'bout My Best Friend" from The Courtship of Eddie's Father ever time I see it.

Yes, Point Blank is a very good film in many ways, and Lee Marvin is very much like Parker in some scenes, but overall I say Statham was more like the Parker we all know and love. I mean, at least he didn't let a man push him down to the floor and slobber all over him.;-)

And before I'm hunted down and beaten with bars of Irish Spring rolled up in bath towels let me clarify: I wrote Parker is a better ADAPTATION than Point Blank--not a better film.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks for your comments, David!

The manic rage you speak of is just the Internet losing its temper again (in a rather un-Parker-like manner, I'll say.)

I agree, those opening sequences in "Point Blank' are pretty terrible--like bad experimental filmmaking from that era.

I still don't think Parker's character has ever been captured in its essence. Crazy Mel came closest, but he was a little too much Crazy Mel.

I saw "the Split" recently with Jim Brown--hilariously bad at times.

Chris said...

Burchfield, you nailed it the first time--don't let anyone make you second-guess. This is the kind of movie that makes you wonder why you ever go to the movies. Which in this case I didn't--got a bootleg, and the quality of the picture and sound was far better than the quality of the film.

Here's Westlake's message (and not just in the Parker books) in a nutshell--compromise when you have to, but never an inch more than you have to. Know who you are, what you can do, and live up to that to the best of your ability. There's no point being half of anything.

This movie is 99.999999% compromise, and who do they think they're compromising WITH? They were never going to get a huge mass audience for a Jason Statham movie, and he's actually made quite a few movies that were ten times as kick-ass as this. And half the budget.

Bad script (from he man who gave us the middle rewrite of "Black Swan" and the miniseries remake of "Coma"), weak direction (I didn't see Taylor Hackford there at all, not that I'm a fan, but he used to have a style), and while there were good people in the cast, they were used to badly as to make you wish they'd just hired all unknowns. It was painful to see Wendell Pierce reduced to a blustering would-be rapist shot to death by Jennifer Lopez.

These people are all so incredibly STUPID--Stark's heisters, even the worst of them, have a basic sense of professionalism, or else Parker wouldn't work with them. All the sense of process, of preparation--gone.

And Claire, who is seen in the novel reading an Aphra Behn novel, is reduced to a gushy girly brainless handmaiden, who is appointed to further explain Parker to us, when the whole point of Parker is that he's NEVER explained. You have to figure him out for yourself. She gets points for getting away from the bad guy, but why waste time siccing the bad guy on her in the first place? Cute actress, but she's not Claire, and you ask me, it's stupid to try to start a Parker franchise with him already involved with Claire.

Even by modern action movie standards, it was just abominably bad. I think the critics gave it too much of a pass, actually. Audiences haven't, and it's dying fast at the box office.

I liked your review style, and was already contemplating something in the same vein.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, Chris!

I agree, the supporting cast was used poorly.

The funny is, I've never really cared for Claire in the books. I've always found her a bit of a third wheel. It's never made sense to me that Parker would let anyone get close to him.

Parker, happily, is *never* explained. This makes him both more mysterious and emblematic to me. Stark took a real risk with a character like this, as he's often repellent. What gets the books across is not only their great slamming, hammering style, but also because the other characters are drawn with such color and sympathy. The books are not only about Parker, but also how the rest of the world reacts to him and deals with him.

I somewhat disagree about Parker's partners in crime. They are often are stupid, at least in so much as they think they cross Parker and get away with it. Some of them seem muddle-headed in unique ways, like Grofield (I grin every time I remember that wonderful scene in THE SCORE describing his utter bafflement at how his fellow thieves pay taxes on their earnings, even Parker (not to mention when he mistakes Parker for God in THE HANDLE).

Chris said...

Well, Grofield is still pretty green in that book--he learns fast.

Yes, of course the Stark heisters make dumb mistakes, but they aren't a bunch of panicky screaming idiots like the guys in this movie, who go off half-cocked at the slightest provocation.

I mean, why is Wendell Pierce's character about to rape Leslie when he knows Parker is out there looking for some way to kill them all? And why did they pick the one black member of the string for that bit of business? I hope Wendell got a nice fat check for that. A far better actor than Statham and Lopez combined.

One thing about the book is that Parker is proven right at the end--these guys know their business well enough, they aren't idiots like the movie gang, but they're too cocksure, and they were going down whether Parker showed up or not--that isn't the point for him, of course. He's driven, as in "The Hunter" to get his own back, no matter what it takes. But if he just wanted to know they were dead, all he had to do was read the news. The police were going to find them without any help from him, and they'd have gone down shooting--all Parker changes in that scenario is that no policemen are shot, and the jewels are never recovered.

But of course that won't do for the movie--Parker has to SAVE THE DAY--bring down the bad guys (never mind that he is one), and then of course he gives a big portion of the loot to these people who saved him--gee, why didn't the Parker we see in Flashfire give some money to those militia guys who saved his ass? What an ingrate.

But of course this Parker is a very nice guy. I believe he works with underprivileged kids in his spare time. Gives all his remaining loot to charity. Leads an exemplary life. He is indeed an angel, sent to earth to test us all. And I'm happy to say I flunked. ;)

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, Chris.

Well, if Parker is an angel sent to Earth, what must Hell be like? ;-)

Dave Plante said...

C'mon, Statham wasn't that nice. His instructing Norte to shoot Danziger's thugs was pure Stark,as was his scolding Hauptman for not doing what he was supposed to before killing him.

This wasn't the perfect Parker film. But it sure as hell beats Made in USA, The Split, and Full Contact.


Thomas Burchfield said...

He certainly was confused--or, better yet, the script's attitude toward him was confusing. It was like they were trying to have it both ways with Parker and wound up with a motley character.

Yeah, it beats "Made in USA" and "The Split." I don't think "USA" even had anything to do with the "The Jugger" but was Jean-Luc Godard making some sort of joke about cultural appropriation. I struggled and struggled and gave up after about 40 minutes.Haven't seen "Full Contact" though.

Chris said...

It's ridiculous to even consider Made in USA or Full Contact in this context--at best, you'd put an 'inspired by' credit in there. Godard never got permission to use The Jugger, and there's no mention of Westlake on either the Wikipedia or IMDb articles for Full Contact.

People trot out these films as if to say "Look, this is even less faithful!", but they aren't TRYING to be faithful. They didn't even admit they were stealing from Westlake. You can't accuse somebody of failing to do something he wasn't trying to do in the first place.

Slayground falls into that same category, but at least they paid for the book rights--they just decided afterwards to turn it into a tedious horror movie that plays out over a very extended span of time and space, instead of the bottle story it was meant to be. They kept the title, and the car crash, and that's it. The movie is a failure on its own terms, but it's not a failed adaptation, because it isn't trying to be a good one.

There's only been four movies you could call real adaptations of Parker books--all of which take major liberties with the story. This is by far the worst of them, as an adaptation, and as a film. It may also be the worst flop, in financial terms, but we'll see how the international market plays out.

Thomas Burchfield said...

But if they--meaning Godard et al--weren't even trying to capture Stark's spirit and make a good movie, I wonder why they even bothered in the first place. The cachet of the name?

Interestingly, I was watching a little of one those "X-men" sequels the other night when the coldly handsome face of Michael Fassbender appeared and I asked myself "Mmmmm . . . Parker?"

Dave Plante said...

Fassbender... Hadn't even thought of him.

My first choice for Parker would be Ray Stevenson from Rome and Punisher: War Zone. Second would be Michael Shannon from Boardwalk Empire and the upcoming Iceman.

I think the greatest chance for success for a Parker adaptation would be a HBO or Showtime-type series. You can just do more mature, intelligent stuff there than on regular TV, and it doesn't have the stigma of being a failure if it doesn't make X amount of dollars over opening weekend like film.

If they were to do another Parker film, I'd hope it'd be a lower budget Indie-type affair. These types of films allow the director/writer to have more control and generally aren't expected to be huge blockbusters.

As for Slayground; I actually like that film. Admittedly, it strays so far from Westlake's novel it might as well be an original screenplay, but I've always thought it a nice low budget piece of noir. Sure, there's some idiotic plot holes, and the actor who plays the assassin is almost comical, but it has an overall dark, English-industrial bleakness that I like.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Dave: I love Michael Shannon, but I'm not sure he'd be a good Parker--he's a little too wide-eyed and seething. haven't seen ray Stevenson since "Rome," but you may have a point there.

I recall liking the opening of "Slayground," but then it just seemed to go stupid from there.