Random Film of the Week: Sharky’s Machine

Sharky's Machine_MPOkay, I’ll admit it. I saw Sharky’s Machine with a few friends back in 1981 just so we could see a massive train-wreck in action. Of course, we were all surprised that the Burt Reynolds-directed film was not only quite good and well made, but actually a lot darker in tone than expected. There are also plenty of scenery-chewing funny bits in here as well, but none of them come at Burt’s expense and very few come from him (another surprise!).

Those bits of comic relief come primarily from the supporting cast made up of some of those “Where do I know HIM from?” actors (Bernie Casey, Brian Keith, John Fielder and Charles Durning among others) while Burt underplays Sharky as a moody and determined cop out to make the best of his earlier demotion who discovers love, death and dismemberment in a few strange places. Only two of those things actually happen TO him during the film, but I’ll keep you in suspense here (for the most part) just because I want you to check this one out at some point…

After he’s booted down to the vice squad after an undercover drug deal gone bad, Atlanta cop Tom Sharky finds himself with an even bigger case that has him and his new team of misfits bugging and watching the apartment of a high-class hooker named Dominoe (Rachel Ward) who just so happens to have a man running for governor (EarlHolliman) as a client. As the wiretap and surveillance drag on, Sharky’s enforced voyeurism sees him falling in love with Dominoe who, other than a lingering glance and smile at Sharky from an elevator, doesn’t know he’s a cop at all. There’s another guy in the picture as well – Dominoe’s pimp/”owner”, Victor (Vittorio Gassman), a total letch who agrees to set Dominoe free if she gives him a night of drug-fueled passion. Of course, from his perch across the way, Sharky gets to see and hear it all…

Victor is not only a pimp and old creepy pervert, he’s a worse liar. A free Dominoe means the potential of his business being known to all and nope, the old bag isn’t having any of that nonsense. The next day, Sharky sees and hears what he believes to be Dominoe getting shot by a crazed assassin (a VERY creepy Henry Silva) and he’s crushed up until the real Dominoe pops back in and both she and Sharky realize it’s Dominoe’s roommate who got her face blown off by that shotgun blast. Of course, it’s then a game of cat and mouse as Sharky and his team find their investigation compromised thanks to some missing tapes and that killer coming after them now one by one. Things get nice and violent as Silva’s killer, Billy gets more psychotic thanks to his PCP snorting and dilaudid by the handful swallowing assassin gets closer to his targets, but Sharky gets an even nastier surprise that will stick with him forever.

All the actors are great, Rachel Ward is gorgeous and you’ll fall for her just like Burt does (despite her profession) and overall, this is one of the great cop/procedural/action films of the 80’s (despite one nutty issue with chain of command that even makes Charles Durning’s character drop a few F-bombs about how dumb it is). I’m not sure if Burt picked the music for the film, but the soundtrack is on point for the most part (save for some incidental music that sounds borrowed from a porno film). Randy Crawford’s radio hit “Street Life” was one of those great songs that took on a life of its own outside the movie and most of today’s film fans will recognize it instantly thanks to its inclusion in Tarantno’s Jackie Brown. I’d gather the main issue some may have with the film today is the “happy” ending (hey, now!) that’s literally a bit too sunny after all the hell these characters have been through. Then again, Sharky sure earned it after what he went though.

In addition to being pretty well put together (it’s a buddy cop flick with a lot of buddies), the film also makes for an interesting look at Reynolds’ nicely honed directorial style as well as how his celebrity had transformed since the early 70’s. Nine years earlier, he and Bernie Casey were on opposite ends of the Hollywood ladder with Burt making his big mark headlining John Boorman’s still stunning Deliverance while Casey was racking up cred in the cult “blaxsploitation” flicks HIT MAN and Black Gunn. The remainder of the decade for Reynolds was far busier than it was for Casey, but both men made some fair to excellent films before they worked together here. By the time Sharky’s Machine was made, Burt had directed Gator (the 1976 sequel to 1973’s White Lightning) and 1978’s offbeat black comedy about suicide, The End.

Neither film was well received by critics, but my upcoming RFotW on the latter may convince you to give it a look one day. For now, take Sharky’s Machine for a spin and see what you think…

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