Even if they were the same age, it would be hard to envision Jason Statham and Robert Duvall going up for the same roles. One is a Sandy Meisner-trained Academy Award winner; the other a former competitive diver turned male model turned guy who takes his shirt off and kicks people in the face. I don't see Statham advising Al Pacino in "The Godfather" — and I definitely don't see Duvall strapping jumper cables to his nipples and juicing himself in "Crank: High Voltage." But nevertheless, with "Parker," which opens today in theaters around the country, Statham takes on a role that was once, many years ago, played by Duvall in a thoroughly satisfying little crime film called "The Outfit," which is now available for online rental or download (or as a good old fashioned DVD) through Warner Archive.
The two films are both based on novels in the famous Parker series by Donald Westlake. The character of Parker — a brutal but principled criminal — has come to the screen on numerous occasions since his first adventure, "The Hunter," was published in 1962. That novel served as the basis for John Boorman's "Point Blank" in 1967 (with Lee Marvin as Parker) and for Brian Helgeland's "Payback" in 1999 (with Mel Gibson as the vengeful protagonist). Over the years, other Parker novels have been turned into crime films, sometimes officially (Westlake's "The Seventh" became "The Split" starring Jim Brown) and sometimes unofficially ("The Jugger" served as unlicensed inspiration for Jean-Luc Godard's "Made In USA"). The one constant: no one, until Jason Statham, actually played "Parker." In every previous film, the character was renamed — as Walker, McClain, Porter, and others.
Nonetheless, Parker was essentially who Robert Duvall was playing when he starred as "Macklin" in "The Outfit" in 1973. Freshly released from prison, Macklin discovers his brother has been killed by two men from a nefarious and powerful crime syndicate called The Outfit. Soon, he learns why: the job that landed him in jail was a robbery of a bank that was a front for the mob. And when you hit The Outfit, one of its thugs growls at Macklin, The Outfit hits back.
Enraged, Macklin reteams with an old friend named Cody (Joe Don Baker) and begins systematically stealing, deliberately this time, from The Outfit. Eventually, he causes enough trouble to get an audience with Mailer (Robert Ryan), the grizzled king of the syndicate. Macklin tries to make a deal, but you can imagine how well that goes. When diplomacy fails, he and his team turn back to violence, with a final assault on Mailer's heavily fortified mansion.
There's nothing fancy about any of this: not the writing or directing by John Flynn (a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who named his boutique DVD label, Rolling Thunder Pictures, after another one of Flynn's movies), nor the acting by Duvall, Baker, Ryan, or Karen Black as Macklin's loyal but conflicted girlfriend and wheelman. This is to "The Outfit"'s credit. It's lean, efficient stuff — far leaner and far more efficient than most of the bloated excess that passes for crime movies today.
I haven't read this particular Westlake novel, so I can't tell you what comes from the source and what comes from Flynn, but regardless who deserves credit, "The Outfit" displays a ruthless intelligence worthy of its lead character. More than a mindless shoot-'em-up, it revels in Macklin's endless inventiveness — his escape route out of an Outfit stronghold patrolled by dozens of men is totally obvious, completely sensible, and nothing short of brilliant. Of course it's also totally anticlimactic, which is why most directors wouldn't have had the guts to use it as the finale of their film.
Overall, "Point Blank" is probably the better movie, but "The Outfit" might be the better Parker movie, if that makes any sense. I'm not the biggest expert on Westlake's novels, but in my limited experience, Flynn gets closer to to the spirit of the source material, and to the pleasures of reading a really satisfying page-turner. All it's really missing is Jason Statham taking his shirt off and kicking dudes in the face — which is why I'll be seeing "Parker" this weekend.