Well, yep. I’m afraid we saw this coming. Academy Award nominated director with unfortunately appropriate name Taylor Hackford’s adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker book Flashfire is not very good.
Jason Statham plays Parker, the cold-hearted career criminal, professional problem solver and single-minded seeker of money. Or he’s supposed to be that character, anyway. He’s involved in a robbery but the other guys on the team want to use the loot as seed money for another heist, and he doesn’t want to. They shoot him and dump him in the water, but he survives and comes looking for them, planning to steal the proceeds from this other heist.
Michael Chiklis is Melander, the leader of the other heisters, who we don’t really get to know much about. Clifton Collins, Jr. is also on the crew, but I couldn’t name a single character trait for him other than Clifton Collins, Jr. looks a little older than last time I saw him in a movie. Parker wears a cowboy hat and pretends to be a Texas oilman so that he can look at mansions in Palm Beach and figure out where Melander and friends are hiding out. Jennifer Lopez plays Leslie, the real estate agent who shows him around, figures out that he’s not really Texan, and pushes her way into his scheme.
When Parker starts talking in his regular Statham accent Leslie is proud of herself. “Ah ha! English accent. I knew you weren’t from Texas!” I couldn’t tell if it was a joke, but it’s ridiculous after several minutes of Statham’s not-even-close attempt at being Southern. If it took her research to figure out he’s a fake she probly shouldn’t be bragging about it.
I’m good at spotting little inspired moments even in shitty DTV movies, and this isn’t as bad as alot of those, but then again I can’t think of a single moment or aspect in the fuckin thing that’s better than mediocre, or really worth thinking much about.
Oh, okay, here’s an area of mild interest: there is an ass-checking-out motif. When Leslie first meets Parker there’s a shot of his ass as he walks away and she checks him out. Later a cop who’s always hitting on Leslie checks her ass out. Knowing the book I can speculate that maybe this is to establish Parker’s all-business, no-sexual-interest attitude, since I don’t think he ever checks out her ass, even when he makes her strip to her underwear and turn around. Or they don’t make a point of showing his appreciation for it or anything. But I don’t think they really establish his lack of interest, either. Or I didn’t notice it, anyway.
Other than this important butt theme there’s very little personality or life in this thing, and little successful humor. The action filmatism is your usual choppy style you get now, with two okay fights maybe being the highlights, if there is such a thing. The photography is competent, the music is generic studio style and not appropriate for the subject matter. Thrilling Hollywood Heist Movie Score #2 by David Buckley would work for the ITALIAN JOB remake or something like that, but it drowns out any intimacy in this smaller crime tale that climaxes with just some guys in a living room shooting each other at close range. There are no speed boat chases or any vehicles going off jumps, no helicopters, no skydiving, only small explosions, more like fireworks. But nobody told the orchestra or the guy programming the drum machine.
As a Jason Statham vehicle it’s thoroughly bland and middle of the road, low on action (if you expected that), definitely not among his best, though not his worst either. As an adaptation of the book Flashfire and the character of Parker, though, it’s more offensive. The surface level plot is pretty faithful, maybe about 70% the same as the book, but all the important shit is wrong. SLAYGROUND and MADE IN USA are even worse as adaptations, but that’s no excuse. And they didn’t have the balls to call themselves PARKER.
Flashfire is the 19th of 24 Parker books, published in 2000. So it actually came out after PAYBACK, and it would’ve made a great introduction to the character for people who just got into him then. The book starts with Parker and the crew leaving from a bank robbery. (The more fanciful State Fair robbery of the movie is fine, one of several additions reminiscent of things that happen in other Parker books.) As in the movie Melander and the others try to get Parker in on their larger jewelry heist, and take his share when he refuses. (In the book they consider it a loan and swear to pay him back, but he goes after them anyway.)
Here’s the major difference: they tell him right there what the caper is, a charity auction in Palm Beach. He tells them how it would have to be done and a long list of reasons why it’s a bad idea, including that they’d have to have a boat “which is the only way off the island, and which is even worse than an island, because there’s no way off the boat.” This dialogue would’ve been good in the movie because it demonstrates Parker’s tactical mind and also sets up tension about the heist. In the movie it’s only Leslie, the civilian, who speculates about what kind of security they’re gonna have there. Nobody ever talks about the danger of a robbery that takes place on an island, nor about the crew’s escape plan, a major hook in the book. They don’t have to flee because they buy a mansion and establish themselves as residents of the community long before the robbery. Then they’ll stick around until the smoke clears. The movie ditches this entirely but keeps real estate agent Leslie as a main character.
Stark’s writing is about being direct and blunt, and these are procedurals. Alot of the excitement is in the detailed planning of the robberies. By page 12 we know how they found out about the auction, who their inside man is, why he needs the money, why he doesn’t get caught. By the time the movie is done cutting out all the process and the tricks you no longer have an interesting heist, you just have yet another one, worthy of a TV show maybe. Not a show I’d watch, though.
Flashfire is actually a great choice to adapt into a movie, or at least it would’ve been if they’d respected its structure more. Parker has his mission from right at the beginning: he wants his share from the bank robbery, and he’s gonna get it by heading them off on this Palm Beach job. I love how it mimics the skeleton of the first Parker book, The Hunter (basis of POINT BLANK and PAYBACK and the comic book version). He’s betrayed and left behind, and he has to rebuild his resources in order to pull off this plan. In The Hunter that’s petty crimes, pickpocketing and stuff. In Flashfire it’s a series of mini-heists. He steals a backhoe and busts through the side of a gun store, he robs a drug dealer and a movie theater. The movie only keeps the part where he robs a check cashing place, and skips the details about hiding cash in the doors of a car and spreading the rest through multiple bank accounts. No sense of fun, no love for process.
In the movie there’s a scene where Parker goes to get his fake passport and the guys there are scuffling with some thugs sent to kill Parker. The scene plays out about like in the book and shows how Parker handles a situation like that. But in the book he just has bad luck and stumbles across something: another customer wanting to kill the only people who know his new identity. It shows the dangers of this kind of business and the randomness of problems that Parker encounters on a job. And it creates this sort of dramatic juggling. Parker continues with his plan while also having to deal with the repercussions of this side-incident. Typically, the movie version reduces this interesting development to routine Bad Guys coming after The Good Guy.
In a recent piece in the L.A. Times, Hackford made it clear that he’s a fan of the Parker books and knows all about their history. He talks admiringly about POINT BLANK and notes that none of the previous adaptations were allowed to be called “Parker.” He explains how an editor “freed Westlake from having to write a ‘do right’ protagonist” and that “There’s absolutely no puritan ethic in Westlake’s Parker. Under no circumstances could he be called a hero.”
Yet, in his movie, he makes the same damn mistake every other Parker adaptation has made, and worse than most: he fucking humanizes him. He makes him seem like a family man. Clare – Parker’s long-suffering girlfriend who lives a separate life from him waiting until he’s done with his jobs – becomes a loving girlfriend who he calls on his cell phone, flashbacks about as if she’s his motivation, and who even comes to stitch him up when he’s injured. The book has a minor character named Hurley, an associate of Parker’s who opted out of the bank robbery and suggested Parker as his replacement. In the movie Hurley is played by Nick Nolte, he’s Clare’s father and Parker’s advice-giving mentor and father figure. Unacceptable.
To be fair, there are some parts in the movie where Parker is a little more harsh than, say, The Transporter might be. He does make Leslie take off her clothes to show she’s not wearing a wire (although with curvy Lopez in fancy underwear it’s more of a sensual moment than the cold-hearted violation it is in the book). He grabs her by her hair in one part. They left out the part where he threatens to throw her off a balcony. Other than that you only see his brutality unleashed on murderers and people who tried to kill him. That’s pretty standard for action movies, so it doesn’t do much to counteract the earlier impression that he’s a nice guy.
PAYBACK really went out of its way to establish what’s different about the character they call “Porter.” During the opening credits we see him get a bullet pulled out of him, steal from a beggar, steal cigarettes from a waitress, steal a guy’s wallet and commit credit fraud. (He also does regular asshole things like not tip, jump a turnstile and push his way between a couple who are holding hands.) Shortly after, in the director’s cut, we see him beat up his wife. That we later find out she tried to kill him only partly makes it better.
This PARKER is supposed to be that same character, but he sure doesn’t seem like it. During the opening robbery he announces “We only steal from people who can afford it and we don’t hurt people who don’t deserve it.” The first part is almost true of the literary Parker, since he’s usually going after big scores. The second part is clearly not accurate. Deserving’s got nothing to do with it, he does whatever he needs to to accomplish his goals. Sometimes that includes being nice to someone, as in the same scene when he calms down a panicked security guard. But in the books it’s very clear that he’s only saying what he needs to to get the desired results. This is a guy who won’t even have a conversation unless he calculates that the person will need that type of human interaction before giving him what he wants.
Though Hackford writes that Parker’s alleged “code of ethics” really “has more to do with pragmatism than any Robin Hood idealism” it didn’t stop him from adding a scene where Parker apparently left a bunch of money for the family of hicks who found him when he got shot. Nothing pragmatic about that.
I bring these things up not to point out that “Hey! That’s different from the book!”, but to show that they’ve changed the essential things that make Parker Parker and that make Flashfire worth making into a movie. None of the good Parker movies – POINT BLANK, THE SPLIT, THE OUTFIT, PAYBACK – are completely faithful adaptations either, but they keep more of the character and the tone than this one does, and are more entertaining movies as a result. I can’t imagine that someone who doesn’t know the books could see this and be able to point to what makes Parker different from Frank Transporter or other Statham characters, except that he does less driving and martial arts.
I just don’t get how these people think. If you like the character of Parker, why would you not want the movie to be about that character? If you would rather make a movie about a more normal movie anti-hero, then why did you sign up to make Parker? And especially in this case, when you have put in writing in a public forum your awareness of six previous Parker adaptations that were not allowed by Westlake to use the name, don’t you have a moral obligation to represent the character well on screen? I say yes.
Man, they fuckin blew it on this one. It seems like it would take effort to make this exciting of a character seem so boring. But I guess that’s just the Hackford magic. If this was supposed to start a series of Parker movies starring Statham I’m pretty sure that ain’t happening. And since they used the damn name as the title it’s gonna make it that much more difficult for somebody else to do one. Thanks alot, assholes.
But Parker is a hard guy to kill. Maybe some other time.
If you thought this was a negative review, check out what Trent from The Violent World of Parker has to say. Some of the commenters liked it though, including Max Alan Collins (writer of
Road to Perditionand the Parker homage
Two for the Money).
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.