Sharky’s Machine (1981) This Machine Grows ‘Staches

If Hollywood lore is to be believed, and who am I to dispute it, when Clint Eastwood made Every Which Way But Loose, his buddy Burt Reynolds thought that Clint was stepping on his toes. Comedy, after all, was Burt’s bread and butter with a pair of Smokey and the Bandit films, The Cannonball Run, and Hooper already in the can. Burt told Clint that if Every Which Way was a hit that he’d try and one up Eastwood with his own “Dirty Harry” type character. Every Which Way was a success, and it lead Clint to do a sequel, Any Which Way You Can, before Burt could get his hard boiled cop going. In 1981, Burt finally brought his vision to life. Setting his cop tale, Sharky’s Machine, in Atlanta, Ga., near his real hometown of Waycross, Reynolds crafted a tale that was part “Dirty Harry”, but it’s hard to think that Eastwood’s character would ever be as introspective or sensitive as Burt’s Tom Sharky. So come with me to the land of many Peachtree Streets, where Southern charm meets up with big city sleaze, where one cop can make a difference, that is, if he has the right machine.

Tom Sharky is a good cop. In fact, he’s the best, but when a narcotics bust goes haywire resulting in the death of a civilian, Sharky gets busted down to the lowest of the low, the vice squad. It just so happens that you can’t keep a good cop down even if you try and bury him. Sharky soon gets his machine, as his new boss Friscoe (Charles Durning) refers to Tom’s team of investigators, running, and they uncover a high class prostitution ring headed by a mysterious figure named Victor (Vittorio Gassman). Staking out one of the girls, Dominoe (Rachel Ward), Sharky soon discovers that she is trying to get out of the life, and he discovers feelings for the woman that he is spying on. Victor promises to let her go, but when Sharky witnesses an assassin (Henry Silva) blow her head off, the cop vows to bring the pimp down. The action races to a violent and hard boiled climax as Sharky dismantles the whoremonger’s operation one bullet at a time.

Sharky’s Machine was Burt’s third directorial effort after the action-comedy Gator and the black comedy The End, and it’s a shame that after Sharky’s and 1985’s Stick Reynolds didn't direct a film for fifteen years after that and not once since. While he had tried to make a film that was “Dirty Harry in Atlanta”, what came out was a more sophisticated and sensitive portrait of a cop than Harry Callahan ever faced. Eastwood came to be a star in the 50s and 60s, and his films, both directorial and acting, have reflected the hard nose edge of an earlier era. On the other hand, Burt really came to fame in the 1970s, and his films reflected that time. I can’t imagine Dirty Harry looking wistfully out the window at a hooker with a heart of gold and falling in love with her, but Burt, like so many 70s fellows, was the sensitive sort. So buried between car chases, fist fights, and Henry Silva blowing peoples heads off with a shotgun. Sharky becomes a very real, human character. There’s also a fair amount of humor still entrenched in Reynolds’ work no matter how seriously he was taking the project. Combined, it doesn't make for a film better than Dirty Harry, but I would put it up against Magnum Force, The Dead Pool, and The Enforcer any day. I'd also like to mention that any movie that uses the song "Street Life" is OK by me. (See also Jackie Brown.)

Since it’s Movemeber, I really can’t go much further without talking specifically about Burt. I've always loved him, and I suppose my first exposure to him was in The Cannonball Run, one of my favorite movies of all time, or in Stroker Ace, a film that HBO could not play enough for my tastes as a child. Since then, I’ve seen almost everything he’s done from his Deliverance break though to his pre-’stache film with Sam Fuller, Shark, and all the way up to his comeback films, Striptease and Boogie Nights. I always enjoy Burt, and Sharky’s Machine is no exception. While the sensitive side of his performance might go a bit beyond where other actors would have taken it, Reynolds has the chops to make it feel even keeled. I won’t go so far as to say this is his finest film role, but it is right up there with the best. I don’t even recall a Burt cackle that Norm McDonald could impersonate in Sharky’s. Reynolds reins it in where he needs to, lets it go when he feels it, and still delivers a hell of a right hook.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has a bang up supporting cast in Sharky‘s Machine. While Vittorio Gassman didn't really add that much menace as the crime boss Victor, Henry Silva ate up the screen as the silent assassin armed with a not so silent sawed off shotgun. In one of the film’s best and most bizarre moments, Silva’s character screams into the face of Sharky’s pal Arch, Bernie Casey, perhaps because he’s out of bullets or possibly because Silva was having fun screaming. Casey and Brian Keith both support the action well as the two other vice cops siding with Sharky, and you can’t beat Charles Durning as the Vice leader Lt. Frisco. Durning looking young (well, younger) and trim (well, trimmer) takes his squad leader into a silly, almost comic relief kind of route as his officers ride roughshod over him, and he was a joy to see on the screen. I think that’s what impressed me most about the film was the number of really solid minor performances Reynolds got from his cast. Even small, essentially thankless roles (see I’m proving it by not thanking them by name) were obviously guided to create a specific tone and continuity throughout the film.

The one thought I had after watching Sharky’s Machine was, if Clint made a sequel to his comedy, then where is my Sharky’s Revenge. That’s what I’m looking for, and if you’re out there Burt and you can hear me, there’s still time. Do it for Dom, who despite not being in this film, would want you to do it… or Cannonball Run IV (And yes, there are three, the third is just unfortunately titled Speed Zone). I could sit here all day and list cop films that are better or more respected in the hallowed halls of cinema, but that wouldn’t make me like Sharky’s Machine any less. Certainly, there are better films, but there are not many that are more fun to watch. The only sticking point is the long stakeout scene in the middle of the film which gets ponderously long, but even that sequence is kept alive by clever dialog and a hell of a finish. If you’re a Burt fan like me, then Sharky’s Machine is a film that you must, must see. If you’re on the fence about Burt, then this might pull you over to his side, but if you don’t like him or his movies, this isn't going to do it. For me Reynolds will always be one of the last generation of classic film tough guys, but he knew how to do it with a wink in his eye and a hell of a mustache sitting on his lip.

P.S. The Mark Walberg remake that seems to be maybe happening. No, just no. Take your Funk Bunch and leave Sharky's Machine alone.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. Dead-on review! Loved this film, Henry Silva - great villain.


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