Between 1962 and 1974 Donald E. Westlake writing as “Richard Stark” wrote 16 terrific novels featuring Parker (no first name), a relentless, unstoppable, remorseless robber. He laid off the character for a while, then in 1997 he started in again and wrote eight more. (The first five were titled Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, Firebreak, and Breakout. I’ve never quite forgiven him for calling the sixth one Nobody Runs Forever, instead of bringing the cycle back to the beginning, with Outcome.) Nine of them have been made into movies, including the recent Parker, with Jason Statham, which I haven’t seen yet. (Three of them were made twice, including the first one, The Hunter, as Point Blank and Payback.) Most of them are undistinguished, at best, and some really suck. But this one delivers the goods.
Until recently all the films have changed Parker’s name to something else. I think it had something to do with Westlake retaining title to the character. In this one Robert Duvall is Earl Macklin, but he’s really Parker. It’s been way too long since I read the novel for me to remember all the details, but it was the third in the series, and the first three were all connected. In The Hunter, Parker was just out of jail, and relentlessly pursuing the people who had betrayed him and left him for dead. In the process he gets on the wrong side of the Mafia, the “Outfit.” In the second, The Man With the Getaway Face, he has plastic surgery to change his appearance, just as the title suggests. And still the Outfit is coming after him. By the third he decides he’s had enough of this shit, and goes to war against the Outfit.
The premise, which is preserved in the movie, is that the Outfit has grown fat, dumb, and lazy, depending more on its reputation for ugliness than on any real smarts. There also exists (in this world, and maybe in the real one, I don’t have a clue) a large number of independent operators like Parker. These are the kind of people Parker contacts when he needs more guys for a job. They know not to rob the Outfit … but why not? Parker puts the word out, convinces a lot of them that, if they know of a big, easy job that involves the Outfit, they should hit them. Dozens of major stings will really hurt the guys at the top, and the top banana himself, the great Robert Ryan.
The movie doesn’t show a lot of that, but we do see Parker and his partner, Joe Don Baker (who can be great in the right role, and is here) pulling off several nice little heists. It’s hard hitting and bloody, and very well done.
For some reason, Hollywood has thought it necessary even in the good Parker films, like this one, to soften him a little. Here, he is out to avenge his brother, executed by the Outfit. In the books, Parker had no brother. He robs because that’s what he was born to do. He has no qualms at all, about anything. He is not a sadist or a thrill-killer, and actually tries to avoid killing, but if you get in his way, you’re dead, and he won’t feel a thing. Again, in 2013, they had to make him a little more sympathetic. The tag line that’s been in all the publicity is that Parker is a man who only steals from those who can afford to lose it, and doesn’t kill unless somebody needs killing. Well, duh. Actually, he doesn’t rob people who will really, really miss it because they don’t have any goddam money! As Willie Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” I would dearly love to see a Parker movie where he is nothing more than what he is: A relentless robber. Probably not gonna happen.
Robert Duvall is terrific here, and he’s backed up by a great cast, including Sheree North, Karen Black, the very scary Timothy Carey, Richard Jaeckel, Joanna Cassidy, and the always frightened Elisha Cook, Jr.