Sharky’s Machine

Burt Reynolds is Sharky, sometimes just “Shark.” I think it’s his last name. He’s an undercover cop, seemingly beloved on the force, but he gets into trouble when a drug bust turns into a public transportation shootout after this dipshit Smiley (Darryl Hickman, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, voice of “Pac-Junior” on the Pac-Man cartoon) drives up to say hello and blows his cover. Everybody thinks it’s bullshit and calls Smiley a fuckin asshole as they whisk Sharky off to his new job in the vice squad. There’s a great bit about how that department is located in the basement and his old partner is only willing to walk him halfway down the stairs.

It’s a shitty job because you’re just busting hookers and stuff, not real bad guys. He gets to know his new co-workers, who might be lazy fuck-ups or might just be resigned to their position in life. But Mr. Supercop Sharky here is not content to settle. He finds a way to go after something big.

There’s a thing in AMERICAN GANGSTER that I think about often, where Denzel’s character Frank Lucas is able to build a heroin empire under-the-radar and blows it all by wearing a fur coat to a boxing match, causing a cop to wonder who he is. This is kind of like that – during a regular rowdy night at headquarters Sharky asks about a powerful pimp who comes in, and decides to start tracking his high class thousand-dollar-a-night escort service.

It’s largely a stakeout movie. Sharky and his “machine” spy on the luxury apartment of one Dominoe (Rachel Ward, NIGHT SCHOOL) and discover she’s in a relationship with a guy running for governor (Earl Holliman, FORBIDDEN PLANET, NIGHTMAN) and being abusively controlled by a crime boss (Vittorio Gassman, WAR AND PEACE). It’s probly meant to be more romantic than it comes across, but I like the sleazy element of Sharky seeming to fall in love with this woman who he has not talked to and who doesn’t know he’s watching her. And I really like the rapport between him and his team, including partner Bernie Casey (GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, CLEOPATRA JONES, DR. BLACK MR. HYDE, STEELE JUSTICE, UNDER SIEGE, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), tech guy Richard Libertini (DAYS OF HEAVEN, LETHAL WEAPON 4), and especially hilarious boss Charles Durning (THE FURY, BRENDA STARR).

Meanwhile there’s this other character out there, the real shark of the movie, Billy Score, played by the great Henry Silva (CODE OF SILENCE, ABOVE THE LAW, DICK TRACY, GHOST DOG). We just see him every once in a while, at first unsure how he will connect with the story, and he’s a total psycho. He’s a hitman, but comes across as a serial killer, lustily stalking his female prey, rarely speaking, making weird faces like a lizard person. He’s a serious drug fiend, snorting coke off the windowsill where he keeps his sniper rifle. And then one day he comes for Dominoe.

I won’t give it a way but there’s a couple shocks in this, including a brutal turn and one of those reveals that seems like it should’ve been obvious, but it fooled me.

I think this is really well directed, by Reynolds no less, his third after GATOR and THE END. It’s got a nice, gritty look to it with very effective close-ups, cinematography by William A. Fraker (BULLITT, 1941, TOMBSTONE). The soundtrack, which I purchased on vinyl at a library sale not too long ago, is pretty soulful, opening with the song “Street Life” that many of us know from its re-use in JACKIE BROWN. Doc Severinsen of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson fame did the score, which is jazzy and uses versions of “My Funny Valentine” as a motif. The sequence that impressed me most directorially is a musical montage of Sharky surveiling Dominoe, in which her tinkering on a piano and later mumble-singing to herself match up to Severinsen’s music. Then Sharky sings along from across the street.

As you’d expect, it’s based on a book, the first by William Diehl, who set it in his home town of Atlanta. He also wrote the book-turned-into-movie PRIMAL FEAR. Adapter Gerald Di Pego also wrote that ‘90s Travolta movie PHENOMENON. For some reason Sidney Sheldon sent the book to Reynolds, and it reminded him of his favorite movie, LAURA. He wanted to get away from comedy, so at first he tried to get his DELIVERANCE buddy John Boorman to direct it.

Like that movie I reviewed last week, THE STUNTWOMAN, SHARKY’S MACHINE is arguably most famous for a freefall stunt. Legendary stuntman Dar Robinson set a record with his awe-inspiring 220 foot fall from a 40+ story hotel window, though I think they fucked up the shot because they clearly show a dummy for the second half of the fall.

Other stuntmen on the movie include the legendary Buddy Joe Hooker, of course, and David R. Ellis, who went on to direct SNAKES ON A PLANE. And Bruce-Lee’s-#1-student/“Sticks”-from-OUT-FOR-JUSTICE Dan Inosanto shows up briefly as “Chin No. 1.”

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 18th, 2020 at 7:27 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Sharky’s Machine”

  1. “Oh, you’ll die all right!”

    This is one of those movies that flies in the face of Mr. Majestyk’s ‘tache theory of Burt. Although, he (Burt not Mr. M) does work a fine ‘tache and beard combo at the beginning.

    It’s one of Burt’s best and that he directed it himself just makes me sad that he didn’t direct more. The opening credits and first scene alone are worth the ticket. Burt had form falling for hookers, having starred – ‘tacheless – in Aldrich’s brilliant HUSTLE, but Rachel Ward is no match for Catherine Deneuve. That said, his machine are a really great team, and I’d happily just watch a movie of Burt and Bernie hanging out.

  2. Sadly, I think he’s Detective Tom Sharky not John Sharky. But that’s still worth celebrating.

  3. My theory—which was never meant to be unified but more a general guideline to the Burtography—does account for the period after which the stache became a load-bearing pillar of the Burt persona (or a crutch, depending on how you look at it) and thus could no longer be removed for non-stache roles, which I believe hurts those films. I’m pretty I referenced SHARKY’S MACHINE and MALONE specifically as movies that would be improved if Burt’s natural toughness wasn’t diluted by the mustache, which through familiarity had become inseparable from his rascally talk-show persona. SHARKY’S is sleazy enough that it can survive the stachening but by MALONE it kind of just makes Burt look like a chubby dad trying to look cool so it makes some parts of the movie unintentionally comical. It definitely doesn’t do him many favors in the Iconic Badass Who Is Like A Ghost And Walks Between The Raindrops department in HEAT, either.

    This does not account for the other end of the spectrum: the rare non-stache appearance in a stache-ready film. The only example I can think of is W.W. AND THE DIXIE DANCE-KINGS but I’m sure there are others.

  4. A Burt Reynolds review has stirred me from my slumber. I need to rewatch this, I think I’ve got it mixed up with Stick. I finally tracked sown Seamus on UK dvd and have yet to rewatch that after many a year.

  5. This is one of my most watched movies ever. Seriously channel 11 WPIX played it like every other Saturday. It wasn’t until this review that I realized that I have never owned it and so my knowledge of it comes from that highly edited TV version. I need to correct this at once.

  6. Venture Bros dropped a random Sharky’s Machine reference all the way back in its second episode ever (in 2004!) and then just let that sit for 15 years before bringing it back as a major aspect of their Season 7 premier*! It was a lot of fun.

    * 7 Seasons does equal 15 years in Venture Bros time. Venture Bros: hand-crafted, small-batch artisinal televsion

  7. Ancient Romans-

    That first episode always made me laugh thinking of this movie (Col. Bud Manstrong hyping the ill fated drawing power of “Shaaaaarky’s Machine!”) but after the season 7 callback/retcon, I had to watch this movie. But seeing Vern’s review just reminds me of how great that Red Death “movie night” scene is. Motherfucking Clancy Brown doing a space version of Quint’s Indianapolis speech, complete with Harley Quinn/Tank Girl, Joker, and Freddie Mercury tributes.

    I have no idea how to post a url so I throw this link into the howling void:

  8. The fact that he goes from full beard to a small moustache early in the movie could be seen as a reversal of the full shave in THE LONGEST YARD, where he goes from rascal to serious inmate at the beginning. Had he donned a Selleck or Elliott, he would have looked out of place in vice, but by maintaining a Bronson/Gable look he holds up i middle finger to the sceptics out there.

    Great movie, though. One of his best.

  9. It’s clear that ‘tacheless Burt would never have attempted the leather trousers+silk paisley jacket – with medallion! – outfit that he wears into the confrontation with the villain in HEAT, but the ‘tache does give his character a certain pathos. That’s something Statham never really achieves in WILD CARD even if he can do the Corey Yuen-choreographed moves and does wear a medallion.

    What SHARKY’S MACHINE reminds us is that, with or without facial hair, given the room Burt could really act. And as a director, he takes the rest of the cast with him.

  10. I feel he should have gone with the look he has in the beginning of this movie all the way through. That hair piece and beard could have eased him over in a more modern, macho look.

  11. I seem to remember one of you guys suggesting that Bearded Burt was Wrestling With His Mortality Burt so yeah, I think that works. It would have been a great look to take him into the 80s and beyond.

  12. I wonder if I would’ve had the same appreciation for him growing up if he had stayed bearded Burt. Part of the charm of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and CANNONBALL RUN to me was how awesome mustache Burt came across despite looking like a douchebag. Bearded Burt looked like the deconstruction of that.

  13. I bearded Burt appeared only in THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING before SMOKEY and CANNONBALL…

  14. I guess THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING underperformed – despite having a character called Lapchance! – and it made Burt wary of the beard. I think it’s another of his great movies, and we probably all agree that the world would be a very different place now if Burt had taken his SHARKY’S MACHINE beard on into the ’80s.

    But heroic beards were in short supply back then. Al Pacino had done his bit with SERPICO back in the ’70s, but he was struggling against a post-Manson tide of beard suspicion. I guess Warren Beatty made that work for him in McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, but by the early ’80s the beards I think of are Clubber Lang’s, MacReady’s, and The Duke’s, ambiguous at best, positively villainous at worst (Carpenter – a ‘tache man to his core – clearly knows his way around facial hair; witness the signifying variations in bushiness of of Lo Pan’s and Egg Shen’s beards in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. And what to make of Snake Plissken’s stubble versus Hauk’s ‘tache?).

    Even Clint’s post-Dollars beards – HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES and PALE RIDER – only help to mine a seam of ambiguity, one moment biblical, the next murderous or predatory. Of course, in FIREFOX Clint goes full beard to ‘tache to clean shaven, marking his hero’s journey, but I can’t remember if the ‘tache is intended to be fake as a disguise or just looks it. In either case, it only serves to make him look deeply and worryingly suspicious.

  15. I swear I’ll let this go in a minute, but if you want to know what the late ’70s and early ’80s thought of beards, I give you:

    Maximilian Schell as Dr. Reinhardt in THE BLACK HOLE (1979)

    And Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark in SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983)

    Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) Theatrical Trailer (2K)

    Re-uploaded in 1440p. Rated: PG/US - PG/CAN This trailer is from "Something Wicked This Way Comes" (1983) DVD released in 2004. ©1983 Walt Disney Productions...

    Both contenders for the bleakest Disney movie ever made, and – SPOILERS! – boy, does it not end well for those characters.

  16. Reynolds is a pretty decent director. Hard to say how great he could be because his movies generally had fairly low ambitions, but he handled them well enough. I do like the way the end fight of Gator was shot, very nice with the dolly shots and doing a chunk of it wide and uncut. And he had the amazing foresight to cast Dar Robinson as the evil bastard in Stick which allowed them to pull off what may be the coolest stunt ever in movies.

  17. Oh wait, I missed the reference to that Dar Robinson stunt. Vern, you’re switching movies…the amazing stunt is in Stick as I mention in my post right above. It’s easy to get these movies confused because they’re generally fairly generic, slightly dull movies about Burt being tough. Except Stick has a great stunt. Don’t know if this one does. Gator has a great truck stunt but nothing matches Stick.

  18. No, Vern’s right. Robinson performed the record breaking free fall stunt in SHARKY’S. And was rewarded by Reynolds with a role in STICK. He has a great stunt there too, but not from the same height.
    And I think STICK is way better than it’s given credit for. By the way, it has a transformation from bearded to moustache Burt too.

  19. I just looked…oh yeah, the great fall out of the window! What a cool stunt…sorry Vern, shouldn’t have doubted you! So funny in the 80s how loose they were with dummies, they just flop around and the camera lingers on them and the director’s like “no one will notice.”

    That’s a great stunt but I remember seeing Stick and was like how the FUCK did they do that?

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