What’s in a name? It’s a question that plagued The Bard, and one with which we still wrestle on idle Thursday afternoons. If you scan the local multiplex listings this weekend, you may wonder what’s with the name Parker. It seems such an innocuous label for a studio actioner starring Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez. In reality, Parker is a somewhat revelatory title. Though on the surface it merely refers to its titular character, the naming of this film Parker acknowledges its connection to an entire series, with entries dotting the cinematic landscape of the last several decades. Parker is a character created by author Donald Westlake (who sometimes wrote as Richard Stark). A master criminal who lives by his own code of ethics, Parker often works with crews, and is usually betrayed by a member of his own team… sending him out on the hunt for revenge.
Many of Westlake’s novels centering on Parker have been adapted for the screen. So why isn’t Parker billed as a sequel? Or a remake? The fact is that each of the previous films adapted from Westlake’s Parker novels has changed the name of its antihero protagonist. It is therefore entirely possible that you have actually seen Parker ply his criminal trade on screen multiple times in the past, and been totally unaware of it. We thought we’d help you navigate this strange name game with a complete guide to Parker in film.
Point Blank (1967) – Parker’s alias: “Walker”
The first, and arguably best, adaptation of one of Westlake’s Parker stories was John Boorman’s Point Blank. The movie is a trailblazer in the neo-noir movement. It centers on the same basic crime story content as previous film noir, but with even grittier characters, bleaker themes, and an amplification of violence. In Point Blank, Parker is called Walker, and is played by the incomparable Lee Marvin. One of Point Blank’s greatest strengths is Marvin’s raw, powerful screen presence. When he occupies a scene, it’s a military occupation. The story is based on Westlake’s The Hunter, in which Parker is double-crossed and left for dead after a heist, and goes on a brutal, ceaseless tear to retrieve his money and get revenge. John Vernon as the villain and Boorman’s seething, unflinching tone are also paramount to Point Blank’s legacy as one of the absolute best crime films.
The Split (1968) – Parker’s alias: “McClain”
Though most cinematic incarnations of Parker portrayed him as a Caucasian male, Gordon Flemyng’s The Split showed us that this need not be the case. This time around, Parker was dubbed McCain, and was played by former NFL running back Jim Brown. Though Brown became an icon of the blaxploitation movement, The Split was released a couple of years prior to the inception of that subgenre, making his casting in the lead an even greater nod to his undeniable talent. His charisma and intimidating physicality serve him well as the leader of a gang of thieves who execute a daylight heist during a football game. The success however does not curb the subsequent paranoia and fallout between the crooks… especially when the loot is stolen. The Split, based on the novel The Seventh, is a bit less focused than Point Blank, but its supporting cast more than makes up for its inconsistencies. Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman, and Donald Sutherland all appear.
The Outfit (1973) – Parker’s alias: “Macklin”
Robert Duvall would take up the mantle of Parker just a year after his Oscar-winning performance in The Godfather. In John Flynn’s The Outfit, based on Westlake’s novel of the same name, Parker takes the name Macklin. He finds out, after being released from prison, that his brother has been murdered by gangsters. The Outfit is interesting in that it’s the first iteration of a Parker story to touch upon the character’s family tree, the death of his brother offering new incentive for revenge. Though not quite as exciting as Point Blank or The Split, The Outfit is a glimpse into the bare-bones, pragmatic career-criminal grind. The relationship between Macklin and his friend Cody gives The Outfit much of its personality; Cody is played by southern-fried revenge film icon Joe Don Baker.
Payback (1999) – Parker’s alias: “Porter”
Most likely the filmic Parker with whom most people are best acquainted is Mel Gibson as Porter in Payback. Another adaptation of The Hunter, Brian Helgeland’s Payback is a stylistic throwback to the golden era of neo-noir. In fact, the cinematography casts a seemingly constant distinct blue hue over the entire film; almost a film navy more than a film noir. Payback is violent, funny, and irrepressibly cool. Gibson gives us an irrefutably bad guy, a thief and con man with no compunction toward taking lives, but one with so much swagger and charm that we can’t help but love him. Interesting to note with Payback is that Porter/Parker’s ultimate fate dramatically changes depending on whether you watch the theatrical or the director’s cut.
Those are the major entries into the nebulous Parker franchise, and all films well-worth delving into before watching Statham take on the role this weekend. For the sake of completionism, it should also be noted that Peter Coyote took on the role of Parker in the wholly underwhelming 1983 film Slayground. In that movie, Parker was called Stone. Also, Jean-Luc Goddard’s Made in USA is unofficially based on Westlake’s The Jugger; his Parker was a woman named Paula Nelson.
[Photo Credit: Jack English/Film District]