Sharky’s Machine

Dir: Burt Reynolds, 1981. Starring: Burt Reynolds, Rachel Ward, Bernie Casey, Charles Durning, Brian Keith. Mystery/Thriller.
Sharky’s Machine

The third and the best of the four movies Burt Reynolds directed and starred in, Sharky’s Machine is often written off as Burt’s attempt at a Dirty Harry like franchise starter since he and Clint Eastwood were often linked as rival '70s macho mega-stars. But where Clint would go on to reinvent himself as an awards bait elder statesman of economical directing, this would unfortunately be Burt’s last memorable movie as a major leading man. (Of course, sixteen years later he would score his only Oscar nomination for his great supporting performance in Boogie Nights). Sharky’s Machine now feels more reminiscent of '70s Italian crime flicks known as Poliziotteschi films than it does Dirty Harry, as these films often dealt with dirty and violent cops in the seedier side of politics, organized crime and prostitution. As Sharky, it’s one of those rare, less winky performances from Reynolds. Though he can’t help but ooze charm, he also creates a sometimes unlikable character as the film veers fairly effortlessly from rowdy Joseph Wambaugh type police station mayhem picture to a Rear Window inspired erotic thriller to a very gripping final confrontation.

Based on a book by the gritty novelist William Diehl (Primal Fear), Burt actually took over direction when his Deliverance helmer John Boorman got stuck finishing Excalibur. Atlanta narcotics cop Tom Sharky is one of those plays-by-his-own-rules badasses who has been bumped downstairs to vice when a sting goes wrong. He's surrounded by a motley crew of great character actors including Bernie Casey (Revenge of The Nerds), Richard Libertini (Fletch), John Fiedler (12 Angry Men and the voice of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh), Brian Keith (The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, the original The Parent Trap) and the great Charles Durning (Dog Day Afternoon, Tootsie, at his most “Durningist”). They are stuck busting hookers to make the town look presentable to a candidate for governor, Donald Hotchkins (Earl Holliman of TV’s Police Woman). It turns out the politician is tied to a high-priced call girl ring led by the Italian sleazoid, Victor D'Anton (Vittorio Gassman, a major Italian actor whose resume before Sharky’s Machine spanned from Big Deal on Madonna Street to the Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb!), who is killing off his own women with a hitman played by the always reliably creepy Henry Silva (one of the original Ocean’s Eleven!)

Sharky is stuck staking out one of the call girls who makes $1,000 a night. She is the very beautiful Dominoe. (Played by the very beautiful Australian actress Rachel Ward in her first big time role, she would have a nice run in the '80s, most notably in the TV miniseries The Thorn Birds). Sharky goes from watching her through a telescope to actually personally bodyguarding her when she becomes wanted by the killers. Of course, he eventually beds her (after strangely slapping her around to help her calm down when she finds out her roommate has been murdered) and they, I guess, fall for each other. Eventually Sharky has to take on everyone, including weirdly, a pair of Asian kung fu artists and (unsurprisingly) a corrupt cop.

The plot probably doesn’t read as well as it plays; it’s actually pretty exciting, especially when it’s doing a sorta neo noir (a big lug in over his head because of lust). Like in Reynolds' three best '70s performances (Deliverance, The Longest Yard and Starting Over), the actor shows vulnerability. Yes, he was fun when he did cartoonish handsome and cocky but it’s truly a revelation when he plays a three-dimensional human. Sharky may be a butt-kicking machine but he also shows fear and makes mistakes (something Dirty Harry rarely exhibited). While his rival Eastwood directed three bona fide Western masterpieces -- The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven (and later many films of certain acclaim) -- Sharky’s Machine is the highlight of Reynolds’ directing career. His two previous films, Gator, a fun southern-fried pulp and the oddball comedy The End, showed potential but his directing followup, the 1986 Elmore Leonard adaptation Stick is truly a disaster, ending his career as a movie superstar and a theatrical director. Though he would find success in television, health issues and a messy personal life would dog him for decades. Sharky’s Machine may be a little crime thriller and not very original but it holds up and if nothing else, it marks the end of a chapter in one of those could-have-been-great careers.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 29, 2018 2:31pm
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