Film Review: Sharky's Machine (1981)


Burt Reynolds, like many great Hollywood stars of his generation, tried his hand behind the camera. His filmography as director was, however, less remarkable than filmography as an actor. His commercially most successful directorial effort, 1981 police thriller Sharky's Machine, might give some answers why.

The film is based on the novel by William Diehl and the plot is set in Atlanta. Burt Reynolds plays the protagonist, police detective Sgt. Tom Sharky who works as undercover narcotics investigator. His latest bust goes horribly wrong, ending with major street gunfight during which innocent civilians get hurt. As punishment, Sharky is demoted to the Vice squad where he would serve under Lt. Friscoe (played by Charles Durning) and work with mostly elderly detectives who deal with minor sexual deviants and street prostitutes. During one of routine round-ups they accidentally get in possession of a pimp's notebook containing phone numbers of elite prostitutes that charge 1000 US$ a night. It turns out that one of those women, a "dancer" named Dominoe (played by Rachel Ward) has popular politician Donald Hotchkins (played by Earl Holliman) as a client. Sharky decides to find the man behind the prostitution ring and sets up surveillance of Dominoe's apartment. As time goes by, he begins to fall in love with beautiful woman. As this happens, her boss Victor D'Anton (played by Vittorio Gassman) is unhappy with her intention to leave the prostitution business and he might send his drugged-out brother Billy Score (played by Henry Silva) to assassinate her.

William Diehl, author of the original novel (who briefly appears in the film in the small role of pimp), said that he had created character of Tom Sharky with Reynolds in mind. Reynolds, unsurprisingly, is one of the best things about this film. Eager to shake off typecasting created by series of silly light-hearted comedies, he plays character with utter seriousness, convincingly portraying experienced and occasionally violent policeman who briefly transforms in the schoolboy after being exposed to ethereally beautiful woman. Reynolds has good cast at this side, which include veteran character actors like Durning, Brian Keith and Bernie Casey, while he also puts English model Rachel Ward (who would later become great star) to good use as seemingly unattainable object of desire. Reynolds also puts Atlanta locations to good use, portraying it as modern "cool" metropolis with elegant skyscrapers, finally showing that the South has joined the rest of America in 20th Century. Film also features unusual but effective musical score based mostly on jazz.

All these interesting elements, however, don't add to coherent whole. Reynolds, who had originally wanted John Boorman to direct, apparently lacked proper directing skills. The film is slightly overlong, especially in the middle, while the ending is rushed, somewhat confusing and utterly un-cathartic despite featuring a spectacular stunt. Silva is wasted as psychotic henchman, while Gassman overplays the character of all-powerful arrogant crime lord. Reynolds leans too much on classic films, including Laura and Hitchcock's Rear Window, making his film look too derivative and inferior in comparison. Some of the original ideas of this film – like subplot of a police detective falling in love with a woman under his surveillance – would later be better used in other films, most notably Stakeout. Because of that, Sharky's Machine is an interesting, but ultimately failed film that should be recommended only to the most loyal fans of Burt Reynolds.

RATING: 4/10 (++)

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Critic: AA

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