We’re supposedly living in a new, egalitarian world of literary criticism, where distinctions between ‘literary fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’ or the distinctions between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ have either disappeared, or at least blurred considerably. Crime novelists like Daschiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler are, at least theoretically, studied today and taken as seriously as are Saul Bellow and John Updike. Who are the ‘greatest’ novelists of the last half of the 20th century? Surely Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon would make anyone’s list, but it wouldn’t be considered ridiculous to mention Elmore Leonard or P. D. James or Scott Turow.
Which is why I don’t feel the slightest hesitation making a case for Donald E. Westlake. This recent article in Grantland captures much of what I feel about his Richard Stark novels, and a major motion picture, Parker, just out, while seriously flawed, captures some of what makes Westlake so interesting.
Westlake’s novels are, first and foremost, amoral. Crime doesn’t pay? In Westlake’s world, crime pays very well indeed. Westlake wrote, as Donald Westlake, comic novels in which the crooks get away with it, and as Richard Stark, serious novels about nastier crooks who also get away with it. The moralism of modern fiction (and of modern filmmaking), Westlake seems to reject as so much hypocrisy and cant; his world is seldom one of good vs. evil, but more like charming and funny evil vs. a lot worse evil. In the Westlake novels, Dortmunder and his gang target a whole array of captains of industry, whose vices Westlake exposes gleefully. Parker, on the other hand, is a professional. He kills when he has to, but he doesn’t much like it.
What Westlake seems to have understood is this: we will always root for the protagonist. We will always cheer for the main character, and we will always think of him as ‘good’, even if he’s a terrible human being. Isn’t that at the heart of the James Bond universe? It doesn’t matter that Bond is a ruthless killer, a womanizer, the embodiment of the frankly contemptible political idea that the ends justify the means. We’re going to root for him, because he’s the main character.
So: Parker. Lots of movies have been based on Parker, but this movie has been sold as one of the first to truly capture Parker as Westlake conceived the character, and Jason Statham’s not quite right in the role. He looks enough of an Everyman to play Parker, but the British accent is the kind of thing victims might notice, and Parker never does anything to attract undue attention. The accent felt wrong, felt jarring. But Statham is an international action movie star; he does well enough in the role.
Parker is a professional thief, and an effective one. He plans his jobs meticulously, and preferably so as to minimize the possibility of collateral violence, not because he’s morally opposed to violence, but because the police take crimes with dead victims way more seriously than they take crimes where just some money goes missing. Parker also has a code: such details as divvying up the loot, or who does what job in the plan are all decided beforehand, and no deviations are permitted. He actually reminds me of the character Statham played in the first Transporter movie, with his list of rules that his co-gang members dare not violate. Parker’s like that too. The movie begins with a robbery at a state fair; it’s so beautifully planned and choreographed, I wondered if real thieves might actually try it.
But in the getaway car after the job, the other crooks (Michael Chiklis, Clifton Collins, Wendell Pierce, a who’s who of American character actors), tell Parker that they have another, much more lucrative job lined up; that they need the take for the job just completed as seed money for the next one. Parker calmly tells them ‘no,’ that he’ll just take his share and be gone. A fight ensues, and Parker is shot and shoved out of the car, left for dead. But he survives, barely, rescued by a farmer and his family. The rest of the movie involves his plan to find and kill all his former partners, while also stealing the loot from their more lucrative subsequent job.
Do they all have to die? Yes. Not as a punishment–Parker’s not about Old Testament notions of justice. But word gets around, and other professional thieves who might want to work with Parker need to know that he’s a man who can be trusted. “When I say I’ll do something, I do it,” he says, more than once. That’s who he is. A plan is made, loot is captured and divvied up, arrangements are lived up to. Deviations are dangerous to all involved. It’s just business.
Parker learns that the job his former partners are planning is going to be in Palm Beach and involve jewelry. To get the lay of the land, he involves Jennifer Lopez, playing a 40-ish real estate agent, desperate for a score or sale of her own. She’s smart, she figures out that he’s not actually a Texas oil man, nor in the market for real estate. She takes a chance, and asks if she can help–become his new partner. He orders her to strip, not for sexual reasons (Parker would never cheat on his long-time girlfriend, Claire (Emma Booth)), but to see if she’s wearing a wire. It’s an interesting scene–Lopez thinks she has a chance to seduce him, but as he explains it to her, he has two choices. If she can help him, he’ll partner up–if she can’t, he’ll have to kill her. And that defines all his relationships, we sense.
In the end, of course, Parker does partner up with Lopez, and together they kill all his former partners. And split several million dollars 50-50. So that’s a happy ending.
It’s not half-bad, the movie. Taylor Hackford, who directs, is a old-school competent Hollywood guy (An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds). He tells the story well, and the action sequences are pretty well staged movie violence. In fact, they’re too well staged. I’ve always liked Statham’s action films, but like all action movie heroes, he doesn’t play a character, he plays Superman. So preposterously good at fighting and martial arts and shooting that he doesn’t seem remotely human. Parker’s good at violence too, in the novels, but mostly because he plans things so well. In the Parker novels, he sets incredibly clever traps; that’s how he kills. In this movie (and who knows, maybe several sequels), he’s really no different than, I don’t know, Liam Neeson in the Taken movies and Matt Damon in the Bourne movies and all the different Bonds in the Bond movies. Those fight scenes are, I suppose, exciting, but they’re also suspense-less, because these guys cannot ever ever lose, or even feel much pain.
The Parker of the novels always knows he might lose. That’s why he plans so carefully. What’s a little strange is that we root for him. But then, we always do, and always will.