Hollywood may have no greater comeback story than Robert Downey Jr. From his brilliant start as a Brat Pack actor to his wilderness years of substance abuse in the 1990s to his resurgence as the keystone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he has really done it all in show business, for good or bad. But since leaving the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man with 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, he has struggled to find a role that fits him quite as well as the acid-tongued, morally flexible superhero. Hopefully, this next project will be it, as he is teaming back up with writer/director Shane Black to star in an Amazon Prime Video adaptation of Richard Stark’s longrunning Parker series.
Parker is a character created by legendarily prolific author Donald E. Westlake, under the pseudonym of Richard Stark (in a neat bit of synchronicity). He is basically the origin of the modern antihero, a tough, ruthless criminal with one sole guiding principle: no double-crosses. Beginning in 1962, Westlake featured Parker in a staggering 24 novels (which is a little more understandable when you know the man wrote over a hundred books in his career). Robert Downey Jr. will be portraying Parker with a feature titled Play Dirty, which, since it is not the title of any of the many, many Parker books, may be a mashup of several or just inspired by them. Fortunately, director Shane Black will be co-writing the screenplay with Charles Mondry and Anthony Bagarozzi, and he knows a little something about writing action thrillers. After all, he wrote Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, all acknowledged masterpieces of the genre.
Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. have also worked together several times already, which bodes well for their new partnership with Amazon Prime Video. Aside directing him in Iron Man 3, Black was responsible for Downey Jr’s first comeback vehicle in 2008, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; after years of instability and being fired from a supporting role on TV’s Ally McBeal, RDJ was basically unemployable as an actor. Black’s directorial debut was a lifeline, and though the twisty crime thriller was not a commercial success, it was critically praised. It also was an indication that Downey Jr was ready to return to the spotlight. Then, later that same year, Iron Man was released and by 2015, Downey Jr was the highest-paid actor in the world. Pretty good turnaround.
It will be interesting to see how Robert Downey Jr and Shane Black interpret the character of Parker. In the original novels, the criminal is characterized as grim and nearly silent, which is not the forte of either RDJ or Black’s famously quippy styles. But it could be refreshing to get a new take on the character, who has already been portrayed on screen by the stern-faced likes of Lee Marvin, Mel Gibson, and Jason Statham. Amazon Prime Video seems to be going all-in on pulp novel antiheroes these days, and hopefully, this will be Downey Jr’s next big step forward.