Burt Reynolds is Tom Sharky, an Atlanta narcotics sergeant. After a drug bust goes bad and a civilian is killed Sharky is demoted to the vice squad, which in the department is the literal basement for police work.
As Sharky tries to adjust to working on vice a random hooker arrest inadvertently reveals a high-class prostitution ring. Sharky takes up surveillance of a thousand-dollar-a-night call girl by the name of Dominoe (Rachel Ward). It’s eventually discovered candidate for governor Earl Holliman is secretly seeing Ward, along with a mysterious powerful kingpin by the name of Victor (Vittorio Gassman). What exactly is going on in her penthouse???
After weeks of staring and listening in on Dominoe, Sharky begins to develop feelings for her and is gutted when it appears she has been killed by sadistic and deranged hitman Henry Silva. But it’s Dominoe’s friend who becomes the victim, Dominoe survives and now Sharky is tasked with protecting her and solving this mystery.
It becomes a case of murdered witnesses, missing evidence, a powerful crime boss, a puppet politician and some nifty 80’s action and only Sharky and his ‘machine’ of pals can uncover the truth.
Reynolds’ movie career is fascinating to examine. He was unquestionably the biggest movie star around from the early 70’s to the early 80’s. The guy could do no wrong. His movies were huge successes, he would consistently turn up on Johnny Carson and be as charming and funny as could be. He proved he could actually act with Deliverance. He could bounce between comedies, drama, romance and action roles without breaking a sweat and making it look effortless.
Even a nude pose on a bear skin rug in Cosmopolitan couldn’t hurt him. Well, according to Burt that photo did hurt his chance at an Oscar nomination for Deliverance, but at the time it seemed like he would have plenty of opportunities for Oscars as he raked in millions at the box office.
In the early 80’s Burt’s reign would come to a very abrupt end, thanks to lazy efforts like Stroker Ace and Cannonball Run II. The era of Burt would be over and by the end of the decade he would be doing cartoon dog voices and find some salvation with his tv series Evening Shade
But we’re talking about 1981 here. Burt is still King of Hollywood and he stars and directs this cop thriller based on the novel by William Diehl. And it’s a pretty enjoyable flick!
Burt as usual is good. He’s surrounded by a nice supporting cast. The soundtrack is catchy and provides some nice atmosphere and there’s a bunch of gritty violent action.
Some fans consider Sharky’s Machine to be one of Burt’s best. It’s certainly one of the best quality films Reynolds did in the 80’s. Sure, Cannonball Run is fun, but Sharky’s Machine is a more serious, suspenseful yarn that could be put up against any good nail biter of the period.
It’s not perfect, but it is a satisfying 80’s cop movie.
The setup is really effective. We’re dropped into this gritty beat Sharky’s works in Atlanta. As he makes his way to a drug bust we hear the song ‘Street Life’ playing over the credits. It’s kind of funny to see after seeing the same version of the song be used years later in Jackie Brown.
The bust goes bad, we get some a foot chase with intense shooting and explosions, leaving a civilian dead. Sharky gets sent to the basement where now he has to report to Charles Durning, in a pretty amusing performance. Durning is always a reliable presence to have around.
The movie really enjoys showing off how rough and dirty the vice squad has it. There’s some real flavor to all those scenes. The cops beat is a real contrast to the high end life Ward exists in. One funny little trait about Durning is how he’s always so outwardly impressed and envious of how the criminals are living compared to himself.
The film looks really cool. A lot of the Atlanta locations are photographed in a memorable way making the city a character itself. There’s a great helicopter shot of Dominoe’s distinctive high-rise at the start, there’s a really well done stairway chase. Even the opening with Sharky doing the drug bust is a dramatic, moody setting in an underground rail yard.
Someone posted a video of the film locations as they look today and it’s interesting to see. Dominoe’s building, which was really the Peachtree Plaza Hotel, is still a very impressive looking locale.
The film does start to drag as Burt sets up shop across the way from Ward. He basically just watches her and it becomes a showcase to show off how stunning she looks exercising, sipping wine, getting ready for bed. Ward was a beautiful woman. No doubt, she is ravishing to look at. It’s no surprise that anyone wouldn’t fall for her and wouldn’t be content to spend all day and night watching her.
The violence gets pretty graphic. The movie doesn’t hold back with it. If you’re thinking you’re going to see little ketchup packs exploding when people get shot you’re in for a shock. A hooker gets killed with a shotgun at point blank range and it’s quite ghastly. Later there’s a torture scene with Burt being at the end of a butterfly knife and again it will have you squirming.
There’s a great supporting cast that make up Sharky’s ‘machine’ of a team. We got Durning, Bernie Casey, Brian Keith, Richard Libertini, John Fielder. The ‘machine’ crew are the ones who provide the little touches of levity in this tense thriller. Reynolds plays his part quiet and straight and not once does he do his signature laugh. You know that laugh of his.
Henry Silva plays the deadly hitman as only he could do. He really leaves a mark with his scenes and has his own little quirks. He’s apparently always coked up and lets out a demented scream each time he’s about to kill someone. Accompanying Silva are some of those 80’s bad guy devices, like eerie strings of music playing when he shows up and while he might be in the shadows his eyes are always lit with a shaft of light.
The film has a nice gradual pace and takes its time to build, but it does feel a bit too long. Things slow down with the surveillance of Dominoe. And then we get those leaps of suspension of disbelief in movies, like how Dominoe falls so quickly for Sharky. It’s pretty fast how this hardened passed around prostitute is won over by this cop.
Some of the dialogue that is meant to be dramatic comes off rather cheesy and we get that standard action cliché of meeting a good cops family, which is a clear signal that he’s not going to be around for very long.
Then there’s that sound of the cops guns, they have that 70’s/80s loud sound effect to it. You know, it sounds like these guys are unloading cannons at each other. It doesn’t kill the action scenes, but today hearing those sound effects is much more noticeable than it was back then.
Appearances by some ninjas that are strong-arms is kind of strange. They always stood out to me as being quite…..odd. Their appearance just feels out of place in this Atlanta set thriller. All of a sudden we see two ninjas running around with nunchucks – wait what? Fortunately, they help payoff with that torture scene with Sharky on a boat. It’s a great scene with Reynolds not playing the macho man but a guy who is genuinely scared and in pain. Seeing Sharky so helpless makes me root for him and I’m anxious to see how he will get out of of this predicament..
The final chase in the building with Sharky trying to catch Silva is another well done scene. Which leads up to the conclusion with the famous fall out of the window of the building. I remember the stunt getting a lot of attention with it being in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the highest freefall drop at the time. Unfortunately, the film cuts it in a way you can’t fully appreciate what stuntman Dar Robinson accomplished. I have no idea why they cut it in a way that you can’t marvel at that feat.
It is somewhat unintentionally funny how quickly the movie ends after that big climax. Silva’s body barely reaches the ground before we cut to the closing credits with Reynolds pushing Ward on a swing. Talk about a cheesy ending.
Overall though, Sharky’s Machine is one of those movies that is a reminder of how good and charismatic Reynolds once was as a leading man. It’s a shame that this was one of the last real high points for his movie career. The rest of 1980’s wouldn’t be too kind to him.
The location video visiting Sharky locations today. Ending with behind-the-scenes footage of the famed Dar Robinson stunt
I think Sharky’s Machine is also an end of a era for the procedural thriller movie which relied on pulling no punches, use of location to provide atmosphere, a gritty edge and flawed main characters. What began, arguably, with The Boston Strangler and Point Blank in 1967 ends in 1981 with this movie. 80s thrillers started to inject more comedy and gloss into them and Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, Stake Out and Tango & Cash went on to define cop movies for the next decade. At least the gritty, slightly funky cop movie went out with a flourish with Sharky’s Machine.
That’s a good point. A year later 48 Hours would arrive and set the template for cop/buddy movies that would be copied countless times and run throughout the decade. The whole action/comedy with a pair of mismatched partners certainly eclipsed the amount of gritty thrillers we saw.
Athough Sharky’s Machine would underperform at the box office (it was supposed to be one of 1981’s big Christmas movies),the theater where I saw it was packed. The audience came to see the King (Reynolds) and were apparently entertained. I thought it was a mixed bag but appreciated the nods to the classic film noir like 1944’s Laura. As a director, Burt had certainly improved since Gator.
Your review reminded me that some influencial film critics like Roger Ebert loved it. Time for another look.