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Sharky's Machine
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by Jack Sommersby

"Taut and Exciting Crime Tale by Burt Reynolds"
5 stars

Garnered good reviews and a healthy box-office take, this is far and away the best thing Reynolds has directed.

The Atlanta police thriller Sharky’s Machine, which Burt Reynolds has directed and starred in, is mesmerizing stuff from start to finish, and if it’s got a few lapses in the plotting and some occasional shifts in tone, it’s still high and above most entries in the overworked genre. It’s based on a dynamite same-title novel by that stalwart of a best-selling author William Diehl, and the movie is largely faithful to it, which is indeed smart thinking being that it read like absolute gangbusters with its bountiful array of delicious twists and turns. During the opening-credits sequence we watch as Reynolds’s scraggly-dressed Sergeant Tom Sharky makes his way through a seedy downtown neighborhood where he meets up with a Cadillac-driving fancy type for an undercover heroin buy, but the operation goes awry, and Sharky chases the dealer into the streets during morning rush hour, culminating on a public bus where Sharky shoots the man dead but not before the dealer has shot and wounded the driver. For getting a civilian shot, Sharky is demoted from Narcotics to Vice, which is considered the nadir of the department; and it’s here he encounters an array of disgruntled cops who’ve made waves in the department and wound up here as punishment just like Sharky. There’s the stocky, greasy-food-loving old-timer Papa (Brian Keith), the trim, Zen-practicing Archie (Bernie Casey), and the always-bitching Captain Friscoe (Charles Durning) envious of any criminal who has more in his wallet than the eleven dollars he has in his; viewed as a complete waste of time of police resources, the biggest crime aside from prostitution in Vice is the cab drivers not wearing their hats at all times (“When we used to flush the toilets upstairs,” Sharky tells Friscoe, “we always wondered where it came to.”) During a routine booking session, though, an upscale pimp captures the officers’ attention, and after some digging discover he’s an intermediary between the city’s leading crime boss, Victor Scorelli (Vittorio Gassman), and his array of seven world-class, one-thousand-dollar-a-night prostitutes. Sharky orders wiretaps on all of them, but the last one on the list, Dominoe (Rachel Ward), is for some reason “protected” by the department, so Sharky and his electronics-whiz childhood friend and fellow officer Nosh (Richard Libertini) unofficially bug Dominoe’s posh apartment in a high-rise, and Sharky begins twenty-four-hour surveillance on her from a building across the street. (The movie is rather vague on this central plot point. In the novel, it was made clear the prostitutes were tools for securing blackmail information on local politicians, while in the movie this is only discovered after the surveillance is already in place, so at first we’re unclear why all the focus on Dominoe.) Over the next couple of weeks, Sharky, divorced and lonely, becomes infatuated with Dominoe from afar; and he soon learns her main client is Georgia’s married-with-three-kids governor, who has aspirations for the presidency. But Victor has manipulated Dominoe into the equation to gain control of the governor, and when Dominoe, wishing for a better life, tells Victor she’s leaving, her death is ordered and to be carried out by Victor’s sadistic, cocaine-addicted assassin brother Billy (Henry Silva). Her only hope is Sharky and his newly-built "machine" of incorruptible cops.

Reynolds made his directorial debut with the uneven Deep South action tale Gator, which had oodles of texture but not much in the way of story propulsion; and when he switched gears with the very-bad black comedy The End, one wouldn’t have expected he were capable of anything with technical prowess and style, which Sharky’s Machine is unexpectedly chock-full of. (It were as if a master director had taken over his soul.) Just a couple of minutes over the two-hour mark, the movie is consistently gripping, with each and every scene acutely shaped and the action sequences impressively staged. There’s a you-are-there immediacy to the proceedings that carry you over the spots that are a bit off, like with some of the humorous bits that don’t quite mesh with the graphic violence surrounding them -- they stick out and make you want to remind Reynolds that, because the movie is so strong in so many places, he needn’t resort to throwaway humor to maintain our attention. But this is just a minor complaint. Reynolds has employed one of the best cinematographers in the business, William A. Fraker (Bullitt), as well as the editor William D. Gordean (Young Frankenstein) and music supervisor Snuff Garrett (Bronco Billy); and taken as a whole Sharky’s Machine is all of a well-controlled piece. I don’t know what got into Reynolds behind the camera, but he’s directed a genre piece with quite a lot of distinction -- the movie has its own look and feel, and is the best of its kind since the Oscar-winning The French Connection, which, of course, is no faint praise. It’s not surprising that Reynolds does good work with his actors (he gives them at least one juicy, uninterrupted scene to strut their considerable stuff), but he’s also become, to the disappointment of his detractors, a bona-fide moviemaker capable of something resembling a “vision.” I enjoyed the camaraderie among Sharky and his partners, the film-noir homages (particularly the 1944 Laura) with oodles of jazz music and cigarette-smoking, the firm and knowing grasp of duplicitous atmosphere through dexterous lighting that never goes arty on us. And the grand finale, set within multi-levels of a skyscraper, has been engineered for maximum suspense. As Sharky, Reynolds is intense and truthful, etching a three-dimensional characterization rather than settling for a blowhard teeming with two-fisted machismo; and in his scenes with the voluptuous Ward (doing her best with the heart-of-gold Dominoe) Reynolds does the kind of affecting underplaying that brought his intimate scenes with Sally Field in Smokey and the Bandit some real chemistry. The first-rate character actors playing the other cops help, and so does the palpable sense of menace emanating from both Gassman and Silva, especially the latter -- his Billy is scary enough where you wouldn’t want him within a twelve-block radius. Oh, there are some implausibilites (among them, a too-high body count), but Reynolds’s snappy, svelte execution carries us over them. Exciting and suspenseful, Sharky’s Machine is full-throttle, hold-on-to-your seat entertainment.

What a pathetic bare-bones DVD from Warner Home Video. No special features and a full-frame presentation. Bah.

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originally posted: 04/02/15 03:05:23
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell good best i remember 4 stars
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  18-Dec-1981 (R)



Directed by
  Burt Reynolds

Written by
  Gerald Di Pego

  Burt Reynolds
  Vittorio Gassman
  Rachel Ward
  Brian Keith
  Bernie Casey

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