Robin’s Underrated Gems: Sharky’s Machine (1981)

Many movie stars go through a phase where they make a consistent string of bad films which causes their stock to drop considerably. For Burt Reynolds, this came about during the “car chase movie” phase of his career. In 1977, Reynolds starred in Smokey and the Bandit, which was a huge box office smash, but unfortunately, the star would become trapped in its formula throughout the late seventies and early eighties. Reynolds would constantly re-team with Smokey director Hal Needham to star in numerous films which existed solely as an excuse to stage elaborate car stunts. These included an inferior Smokey and the Bandit sequel, two Cannonball Run movies, and other less-than-stellar car chase comedies such as Stroker Ace. While these films wound up doing a lot of long-term damage to his career, Reynolds did take a brief respite from car crashes in 1981 when he decided to step behind the camera to direct himself in a cop thriller called Sharky’s Machine, which was marketed as “Dirty Harry Goes to Atlanta”. Based on a bestselling novel by William Diehl, Sharky’s Machine finally gave Reynolds the chance to do some real acting and play a complex, fully fleshed-out character for the first time in awhile, and it also covered material much darker than Burt Reynolds fans were used to seeing. The film was a box office success and garnered pretty good reviews, though Reynolds would move back into his more lighthearted fare right afterwards. Sharky’s Machine is somewhat forgotten about thirty years later, but it remains a tough, gritty cop thriller that does an impressive job at balancing dark and funny material.

Sharky (Burt Reynolds) is a tough undercover narcotics cop who works the main streets of Atlanta, but after a drug bust goes horribly wrong, Sharky is demoted to vice, an area which is looked down upon in the department. The vice squad is literally located in the police station’s basement and consists of some very colourful characters including a crotchety old cop nicknamed Papa (Brian Keith), a spiritual Zen-loving cop named Arch (Bernie Casey), and a flaky surveillance expert named Nosh (Richard Libertini). The team eventually becomes “Sharky’s Machine” and work under the watchful eye of Lt. Friscoe (Charles Durning), and when you cast Charles Durning as a police lieutenant, you know there’s going to be a lot of yelling and screaming. Sharky thinks he’s been relegated to a mundane existence of rounding up hookers until he accidentally stumbles upon a massive prostiution ring. His team winds up doing surveillance on the apartment of a high-class $1000-a-night escort named Dominoe (Rachel Ward), whose biggest client is a major political candidate running for governor. As Sharky maintains a constant watch on Dominoe, he starts to fall in love with her, and is particularly repulsed to discover that she is under the control of a pimp named Victor (Vittorio Gassman), who brought Dominoe into this life she was only twelve years old. Dominoe tells Victor that she is planning to leave his prostitution ring, and it’s not long after that when Sharky witnesses a hitman show up at Dominoe’s front door and blast her in the face with a shotgun. Or so he thinks…

I’m probably not spoiling too much when I reveal that the girl who is shot in the face is actually not Dominoe and that she suddenly returns from a weekend getaway, alive and well. This plot turn was borrowed from the 1944 film noir classic, Laura, and much like Sharky, the protagonist in that film was a cop who developed a major obsession for the title character. Blatant copycatting aside, Sharky’s Machine has a strong enough story to stand up on its own, and the relationship between Sharky and Dominoe provides the heart of the film. The gorgeous Rachel Ward brings such an intelligence and dignity to her role that it’s easy to see how Sharky could become so obsessed with her. You can tell that Sharky finds it genuinely painful when he is forced to watch her have sex with sleazy characters like Victor. One of the best moments in the film occurs in the awkward scene when Sharky brings Dominoe back to his house and realizes, to his horror, that he has forgetten about the shrine of photographs of her that he has taped to his wall. Like Dana Andrews in Laura, Reynolds plays a character who walks a fine line between being noble and creepily obsessed, and he handles it well, marking one of the few times during this era that Reynolds attempted to do some genuine acting in one of his roles. While Sharky’s Machine covers some pretty dark material involving drugs, prostitution and murder, it also contains its fair share of lighthearted humour that Reynolds’ fans would expect to find in his films. While the switches in tone are sometimes jarring, the interaction amongst the colourful cops that make up “Sharky’s Machine” is often hilarious, and these characters have more energy and eccentricity than you’d expect to find in your standard cop film.

The villains in Sharky’s Machine are about as colourful as the cops. Vittorio Gassman is wonderfully slimy as Victor, but he almost has the film stolen away from him by the always reliable Henry Silva, who plays the VERY weird and drugged-out hitman, Billy Score. The plot of Sharky’s Machine is pretty convoluted and just when you think things couldn’t get any weirder, the movie suddenly throws in a pair of deadly Chinese assassins who kung-fu people to death! I haven’t read the original novel by William Diehl, but I assume the complicated plot might have flowed a bit better than it does here, since some of the narrative transitions in the film adaptation are pretty muddled. The bizarre climax where Sharky and his fellow cops track Billy Score through a high-rise building is very exciting and intense, but seems to come out of nowhere and almost feels like it belongs in another movie. The film also concludes with a very strange transition that should have made my “Top 10 Most Hilariously Abrupt Movie Endings” list. These pacing flaws aside, Burt Reynolds does a very solid job at directing this film and displays a talent for staging thrilling action sequences. He knows how to direct the funnier, more lighthearted scenes, and has a surprising knack for handling the darker stuff as well, as one scene from late in the film involving finger chopping always manages to make me cringe harder than anything in the Saw movies. While Sharky’s Machine may not be a very well-known cop movie today, that hasn’t stopped a creatively bankrupt Hollywood from attempting to crawl back to it for ideas. Like many other films I’ve covered in “Robin’s Underrated Gems”, a remake of Sharky’s Machine went into development in 2006 and was set to star Mark Wahlberg as Sharky, but it seems to have been stuck in limbo for the past few years. It’s probably a good thing that this project has never gotten off the ground as Sharky’s Machine is a prime example of a gritty old-school action movie that fans of the genre treasure. It delivers the thrills and action that fans of the genre are looking for, but as a bonus, it also provides interesting characters, quirky humour and intelligent dialogue, and it’s hard not to appreciate an action film that goes the extra mile when they don’t have to.

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