Sharky's Machine (1981)

Repeat | May 5, 2016 | Carlos Castillo

Burt Reynolds spent his career playing loveable rogues on both sides of the law. In “Sharky’s Machine” he’s a good guy working out of a corrupt precinct in Atlanta. The film is prominent in Reynolds’ oeuvre because it marks the last time he 1) had the star power to have control over the finished product; AND 2) the last time he successfully resurrected the aforementioned sympathetic tough guy that populated many of his early films. If you’re a fan of his early output such as “Shamus,” “Hustle” and especially the Gator McKlusky films (“White Lightning” and “Gator”), “Sharky’s Machine” was the end of an era. Let me tell you why.

It remains a mystery to me why Hollywood (or for that matter, Reynolds) didn’t return to the McKlusky character at least one more time. Paul Newman did it with Fast Eddie Felson in “The Color of Money,” allowing the character to draw from experience rather than just youthful strength and exuberance. But we do get a wiser and wearier Burt (he was well into his 40s by this time) via Tom Sharky.

Director Reynolds did himself and the movie justice by creating an amazing ensemble of actors led by Charles Durning. Reynold’s didn’t have to carry the movie, so he could fine-tune his direction. Actors such as Brian Keith, Bernie Casey and a host of others help pull off writer William Diehl’s motley clan that assist Sharky in his pursuit of Victor, the ruthlessly evil bad guy rendered perfectly by Vittorio Gassman.

Gassman chews scenery, as do the other great actors in this film, but they don’t get piggy. They walk the fine line between allowing us our suspension of disbelief and getting a little too cute. Props to director Reynolds for knowing when to say when and keep the showboating under control.

I would also single out the editing for praise as the movie is very well-paced. Every scene works, some better than others but no real clunkers anywhere. Diehl’s book was pretty expansive, so the choices that were made really worked for the movie version of this story. While many of the characters are one-dimensional, they provide an appetizing smorgasbord. One example is the hooker with the heart of gold, Dominoe (Rachel Ward).

Beauty is in the eye of you know who, but Ward is very easy on the eyes, as celebrated in the shot where she turns and smiles at Reynolds as he pretends to fix an elevator. This is a pretty routine moment in movies, to showcase a beautiful woman, but Ward is enchantingly beautiful. By this point in the movie, you know that Tom Sharky has quite a crush on Dominoe, which Director Reynolds reveals with surprising tenderness.

Hats off to production designer Walter Scott Herndon and the location scout. The boat where Sharky loses his digits, Kitten’s den, Dominoe’s over-the-top apartment, the vice “dungeon”—all are fresh takes on things we’ve seen before in movies. “Sharky’s Machine” gave Atlanta a face lift in my mind’s eye, with the featured Peach Tree Plaza skyscraper a dazzling crown jewel.

(An aside: Reynolds did have a short-lived nightclub called “Burt’s Place” in the Omni International complex in downtown Atlanta in the 1970s. What’s interesting about that tidbit was the same complex housed a short-lived indoor theme park called “The World of Sid and Marty Krofft.” The Krofft brothers were the team responsible for the H.R. Pufnstuf franchise, a popular kids show and movie. A subplot in the novel “Sharky’s Machine” that didn’t make the movie was a Disneyesque theme park that was supposed to serve as villain Victor’s coming-out party as a legitimate businessman. “The World of Sid & Marty Krofft” factored into Diehl’s storyline maybe?)

The jazzy score blends well with the cool, dark undercurrents of the Atlanta setting and is a nice reprieve from the pop hits of “Saturday Night Fever,” “Urban Cowboy” and other movies of that era.

Comedy is hard to do and Reynolds pulls it off, as director and star. I used to watch him on “The Tonight Show” crack wise, so I have an affinity for his type of humor. One of my all-time favorite lines is in the bus when Sharky’s chasing the black scag dealer (Lamar Jackson). When a black bus passenger tries to curry favor from the gunman by referring to him as “brother,” the dealer famously screams, “I ain’t your goddamn brother!”

Reynolds always worked best when comedy went along for the ride versus being the main course. But, then again, Eddie Murphy tried to be a singer and look what happened there. You can’t fault these guys for trying new stuff, but in Reynold’s case, he probably could have had it both ways. I just think his boldface attempts at pure comedy fell short of his comedy-spiced action fare.

After “Sharky’s Machine,” Reynold’s suffered a debilitating injury while filming “City Heat” with Clint Eastwood. This injury led to a painkiller dependence and undoubtedly had an adverse effect on his ensuing performances. He was also getting older and too many of the films that proceeded “Sharky’s Machine” hinted at an aging star trying his darndest to look and play younger. No shame in that. Back in the 1980s, I still put down good money for “Stick,” “Malone,” and “Heat” to see Reynolds in action. Too bad that in the latter, they fired director Robert Altman after only one day. That could’ve been special.

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