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The Parker Films: Slayground (1983)

October 5th, 2020
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I’m continuing my look at the films based on Donald E. Westlake (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark)’s Parker Character.  I really enjoyed 1967’s Point Blank (click here for my review) and 1968’s The Split (click here for my review).  I thought 1973’s The Outfit was a step down, though I did still enjoy the film.  (Click here for my review.)  The next Parker film I watched was 1983’s Slayground, based on the 14th Parker novel with the same name.  Unfortunately, I thought this one was a major dud.

It’s fun seeing a young, virile Peter Coyote (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Sphere, Erin Brockovich, The 4400) in the leading role as the Parker character.  (As usual, the character has a different name: in this film, he’s called Stone.)  (That’s a lot better name than Earl Macklin given to Robert Duvall in The Outfit!)  Mr. Coyote’s glorious nineteen-eighties hair is a sight to behold.  Mr. Coyote does his best, and watching him at work in his prime was, for me, the most enjoyable aspect of this film.  Unfortunately, he can’t elevate the material out of B-movie-land.  It also doesn’t help that he’s given a bizarrely un-dangerous wardrobe, with lots of puffy sweaters.  This is a much gentler Parker character than we’ve seen in the three previous Parker films I watched.  He seems to care a lot more about the woman in his life than any of the other Parkers did.  (Though the film does a poor job of fleshing out her character.)

In most of the other Parker films, the story revolves around Parker getting betrayed or otherwise screwed over during a heist; and then Parker needs to get revenge.  In this film, what goes wrong during the crime is that the twitchy get-away driver accidentally crashes into a civilian’s car and kills a little girl.  The person looking for revenge is her angry father, who eventually sends a hit-man after Parker (Stone).  It’s an ugly plot-twist that Stone is complicit in the death of a child.  (It’s not Stone’s direct fault, but it happened during a crime he was committing.)  This has the effect of taking any fun this crime film might have had right out of the film.  The girl’s death casts an ugly pall over the entire story, in my opinion.  Now, a somber, elegiac story about a criminal whose life takes a terrible turn because of a tragedy like this might have been an interesting film.  But that’s not at all the type of film this is trying to be.  And so I think that is the biggest miscalculation in a film that seems to be filled with miscalculations.

Because while there are some enjoyable moments in the film, it feels to me like a misfire through and through.  The characters aren’t interesting enough.  The suspense isn’t compelling enough.  The action isn’t exciting enough.  The elements just don’t come together in a way that works, in my opinion.

Philip Sayer plays the hitman, Costello, who is after Stone.  The goal seems to have been to create an unusual, scary and memorable villain.  But it doesn’t work.  The effete killer plays as more silly than scary to me.  And while Costello seems to have near-super-human abilities for most of the film, due to silly plot contrivances he manages to fail to kill Stone again and again.  (For example, early in the film, he ambushes Stone and shoots up his car, but then he doesn’t bother to stop to check to make sure Stone is actually dead!  Then, later, Costello ambushes Stone again when Stone stops at a gas-station — but he shoots up the gas station from far away, rather than coming in close to make sure he is able to kill Stone.)

The film is full of this sort of plot silliness.  After he’s hired in the early going of the movie, Costello tracks down the getaway driver nearly instantaneously (it’s hard to believe)… and then he kills the driver by melting him somehow?  It’s way over-the top.  Stone then gets wise that someone is after him, but curiously he doesn’t warn his long-time partner, Joe!  (They should have had the hit-man kill Joe BEFORE Stone knew about him.)  The film is filled with these sorts of problems.

The film switches gears mid-movie when Stone heads to London to seek the aid of his former partner Terry Abbatt, played by Mel Smith (a terrific British comedian, who is probably best known to American audiences as the Albino in The Princess Bride).  It somewhat deflates the tension of the killer stalking Stone that he’s able to get all the way to London without much trouble.  And it’s weird to introduce a whole new set of characters, including Terry, his girlfriend Madge (Billie Whitelaw), and the gangsters who want to buy the amusement park Terry has been renovating and who are willing to hurt people to make that happen.  Also, we suddenly learn of a danger to Stone that’s far more creepy and dangerous that the villainous hitman: it seems the damage he’s sustained to his back could cripple him within a year if untreated.

It’s weird that the movie basically re-starts at the half-way point, but I think I liked the second half better than the first.  (Though neither are that good.)  I liked both Mel Smith and Billie Whitelaw’s characters more than anyone found in the first half of the film.  It feels to me like the filmmakers should have dramatically shortened the first half of the film and gotten Stone to London much sooner.

That also would have allowed them to spend more time in the showdown in the amusement park.  That showdown is the whole reason this film has the title of Slayground, and I believe that in the original novel, the cat-and-mouse game within the deserted amusement park makes up the bulk of the story.  (It does in Darwyn Cooke’s terrific graphic novel adaptation of the novel!)  It’s a disappointment that the amusement park showdown is smushed into basically just the final ten-ish minutes of the film.

For a film that’s pretty leisurely paced, it ends rather abruptly.  We never learn what happens to Madge.  We never learn if Stone is able to get the surgery he needs.  We never know if he reunites with his wife and leaves the criminal life behind (was he said he would earlier in the film).

One final bright note: I loved seeing P.H. Moriarty, a wonderful British character actor who played Baron Harkonnen in the Sci-Fi Channel’s two Dune mini-series from the aughts, pop up in a small role here.

Oh well.  This one was a miss.  Next up: Brian Helgelend’s Payback, originally released in 1999!  I’ll be watching the Director’s Cut, released in 2o06.

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