Some thoughts on panning Parker, and thanks to Paul Westlake

Parker poster German

While I’m sure there are some critics who do enjoy it, I really hate writing negative reviews.

I’m always aware that even if the book, movie, or album didn’t quite work for me, it represents hundreds if not thousands of hours of hard work for someone, and I don’t think very many people set out to make a bad work.

And I think that irrespective of the ambitions of the piece. I’m sure the people involved with Alien vs. Predator set out to make the best Alien vs. Predator movie they could, given their limitations. Somone put some real care into that novelization or Harlequin romance.

There was one time I didn’t publish a negative review. It was of a book by a young writer with his heart in the right place and who hadn’t gotten too much attention. I decided I didn’t want my review coming up early in his search engine results. I didn’t want to discourage him and I wanted him to keep trying. I’ll pan a book by an established writer, but with this fellow, I just couldn’t do it even though I didn’t think his first novel was very good.

Panning the Parker movie didn’t feel good at all. Obviously, I wanted it to be good. Beyond that, I’ve had contact with some of the people who were part of making the movie ranging from casual association to intimate involvement, and they’ve all been terrific. Producer Les Alexander has reached out to me and other Parker fans. Paul Westlake and I did a podcast together awhile back and I really enjoyed the experience. I’ve had contact with a couple of others involved on some level with the film who shall remain anonymous. I like them all.

So slamming the movie not only wasn’t fun; it was painful.

But I do this for Parker, Donald Westlake, and crime fiction fans, and my job as I see it is to be honest. Regular readers (and there are some of you out there who have been reading the site for over a decade) can peg what they’re likely to think based on our agreements and differences over the years. Just like me and Roger Ebert–since he’s been around forever, I know that we’ll agree on some things, but he’s too dazzled (from my perspective) by flashy visuals to the point of being willing to overlook a bad script. I generally can’t overlook a bad script. So when I read an Ebert review where he loves a movie with flashy visuals, I take that past history into account and recognize that there’s a good chance I’ll like the movie less than he did.

I also know that I am not the Voice of God when it comes to things Parker. I’m just the dude who started the website. My opinion isn’t any more special than that of anyone else who loves the books. That’s why I was delighted to link to some other takes in updates to my review. (Max Allan Collins’ thoughts I was particularly happy about, because he knew Donald Westlake and he knows a thing or two about movie adaptations. He’s more qualified to comment than I am. I am not the Voice of God.)

I suppose all of this sounds a bit neurotic, but, again, writing that review wasn’t fun. I know people involved in the film read this site. I want them to know that I’m sorry I didn’t like the movie, but I do like them. And I hope they don’t hate me for being honest. I owe it to my readers, and I like them too much to abuse their trust by not being straight with them.

It is for these reasons that I’m extraordinarily grateful to Donald Westlake’s son Paul for taking the time to comment and share his thoughts. It wouldn’t have surprised me if everyone involved in the film at any level decided I was an asshole Internet crank that they would now hate for eternity. I’m not even sure I’d blame them.

We’re at over forty comments on my review, so a lot of you likely didn’t see Paul’s remarks. I’ll paste them in this post.

Trent, your love for Parker is a joy to behold! I love that you had so much to say about the movie and in such detail, despite the fact that you hated it with the same passion! Lots of ground to cover here and we’ll have some disagreements but it’s a testament to Don’s genius that we can have so much to say.

Don’t be so sure there won’t be at least one more movie. The options are paid for and the box office isn’t done. Statham’s last few movies haven’t done much better on opening weekend but still ended up making some money. I agree with MAC [Max Allan Collins] that the title was a big mistake. It might have been owed to Les Alexander’s thrill with being allowed to use the name but it does nothing to sell the uninitiated on the movie.

As to the specifics, since I’ve spent so much of my life on film sets, I know how difficult it is to translate prose to images. And I also know that a lot of the flaws Trent detected in the script are not actually McLaughlin’s fault, since the film company and their marketing teams tend to have a lot of influence on those things.

Winning the stuffed animal for the little girl at the fair is hardly a Parker-like activity, to be sure. And yet, doesn’t Parker frequently find himself doing things that he would never do just to make the people around him more at ease? Doesn’t he say “hi” when all he wants to do is stay quiet and hear about the job? And that with fellow heavies! Wouldn’t Parker go through the motions of maintaining the entirety of the disguise, right down to smiling and winning a toy for a kid, if that meant keeping the job on schedule? The thing we’re missing is Parker’s internal monologue wherein he reveals his disgust with the motions, even as he goes through the motions. How do you translate that on camera without a voiceover or a sneering aside? I don’t think Don would have put him in that specific situation (obviously) but once there, he wouldn’t have let him off easy, either.

I agree that this film misfires on some of the essential attributes of Don’s creation but I think we can take the purity a little too far at times. Why didn’t Parker kill Eddie Wheeler in “The Score?” Why does Parker make sure Grofield lives and gets his take in “The Handle?” Why did Parker ever get married? What’s the backstory there? Did they have a church wedding? Go to Vegas? We’ll never know.

But now let me bring in another angle. Don tended to write about characters only as long as they were interesting to him. After Butcher’s Moon, Parker ceased to be interesting to him for more than two decades. In another, much shorter, series under the pseudonym Tucker Coe, Don wrote about the disgraced cop Mitch Tobin in the aftermath of his moment of disgrace as he goes through the process of putting a new life together. After five books, Tobin is somewhat back to “normal” and that renders him uninteresting to Don and so he stopped writing about him. Forever.

So I have to ask, what made Parker interesting to Don at the moment that we meet him in “The Hunter?” Was he just a garden variety crook until he was betrayed by his wife and partner? Is that what makes him “angry – not hot angry, cold angry,” as Don put it? Is that the fuel for his preternatural instincts and talents? And don’t we see some softening in his character as the books progress, even before Butcher’s Moon? Parker in a house? A house!? And yet, Don wrote that. In fact, Don was constantly writing about the things that Parker found illogical, or inane, or a waste of time, but nonetheless necessary to satisfy another person’s desires or expectations or, at the very least, keep the job on track. That dynamic is very difficult to translate to a visual medium.

There are changes that I find unnecessary and somewhat weird, like the contrived familial connection with Claire, the house magically transported from New Jersey to Florida and leaving Claire unattended when he knew death was on the way. But Parker also left George Uhl alive and knew it was mistake when he did it. And it really was a mistake because it came back to bite him in “Plunder Squad.” And yet, Don wrote that.

Parker is a master planner and improviser but he’s not a demi-god. He really is left for dead in “Flashfire.” He really does go to jail in “Breakout.” He really does try to go help Joe Sheer. And Don may actually have completely agreed with Trent about all this because he thought “The Jugger” was the worst of the Parker books for the simple reason that Parker “wouldn’t do that.” And yet, Don felt that Parker would do that for long enough to write the book.

Even Don was occasionally conflicted about Parker’s true nature. And, after all, isn’t that what makes the best characters most interesting? We know what we think Parker would do, but he never quite did those things did he? There was always some angle we, as readers, hadn’t considered. But Don did. And that’s what made the books worth reading.

There is a lot of Hollywood shorthand in this movie that is intended for audiences with certain expectations (despite not actually knowing what those expectations are half the time). It takes a truly brave studio to make Parker as unsympathetic as Don did. But even Don’s version is more sympathetic than we think because we tend to agree with his sporadic commentary about assholes. So, hey, if Parker thinks that guy is an asshole, and he is, then Parker must not be all that bad. Dangerous yes. But not an asshole. There’s a difference.

Would I like to see Parker done bare bones, just like the books? You bet! But I don’t kid myself that it can happen with the kind of filmmaking-by-committee that goes on in today’s demographically-driven entertainment complex. There are so many studios that would turn Parker into a strongman for a beleaguered church or some such crap to “humanize” him that we should be cheering that we got this much!

I could get into the specific changes I would make, or would like to see made in the next film. And I do believe we’ll have at least one more. But I’ll reserve those comments for Les and the production team to see if we can’t make some improvements down the line. The one thing I can say for sure is that I would not have chosen “Flashfire” as the first in this series. But that water was long under the bridge by the time I caught wind of this project. I hope to remedy that situation in future.

Thanks for the keeping the fires burning, Trent. You light the way for so many fans and care so deeply about the integrity of the work that you’d probably freak Don out a little — in a good way! Mostly. ;-)

Thanks, Paul, for your thoughts and your understanding. And of course putting hundreds of hours into a fan site is weird, but I’m self-aware enough to know that, and I try to keep a sense of humor about it! God bless, and fingers crossed for a successful sequel to Parker.