I like Burt Reynolds as a director. Take a film like GATOR. It can be violent and ends with a great car stunt followed by a really fun fistfight in which Reynolds punches Jerry Reed through enough wooden walls to almost become parody. It also has a henchman so big he drives with his head sticking out a sunroof. It makes a fool of Jack Weston but lets him have a little genuine heroism before getting blown away. It - for reasons I don’t understand but also don’t question - has a whole lot of interactions between Reynolds and cute animals.
GATOR is fun. It’s clean yet filled with idiosyncrasies. SHARKY’S MACHINE has a lot of these interesting touches as well. It’s not as fun, but that’s because it’s 1981 and Reynolds isn’t trying to play a rebellious good ol’ boy from the bayou. This time he’s a gritty cop. Not just a cop either, but one of the worst hero cops in ‘80s cinema. My guy doesn’t do much and everyone around him gets killed.
When SHARKY’S MACHINE begins, Reynolds seems like a good cop. He’s undercover and you can tell it’s serious because he has a beard. When a shittier cop, Smiley, screws up his bust, Sharky ends up in a standoff with a villain which gets a civilian shot. Rightly, this catches Sharky a severe demotion. They flush him down to Vice.
Here we meet the film’s real stars. I’m sure Burt Reynolds has as big an ego as any major Hollywood star, but he lets himself be the least interesting character in SHARKY’S MACHINE. You have Bernie Casey as the totally zen (and unashamed about it) Arch. Brian Keith as the constantly eating Papa. Later we meet Richard Libertini’s mild-mannered Nosh. And then there’s the great Charles Durning as the always-screaming, Friscoe. This crew makes up the titular machine, and each one of them has character to spare. Which is a good thing because SHARKY’S MACHINE is mostly a film of surveillance rather than action. We spend a lot of time just listening to these guys gab with each other.
Sharky doesn’t get kicked downstairs to immediately start taking over the place. It just kind of happens that way. On his first day, the crew gets a lead on a $1000 a night prostitute (Rachel Ward’s Dominoe) who counts the future Governor of Georgia as a client. They start a 24-hour surveillance on her led by Sharky, who of course starts falling in love with the lady. Not a whole lot happens during the first hour but it doesn’t matter because it’s fun listening to all these cops yell over each other, with Burt occasionally mumbling something wry that reminds you of your dad.
Things change significantly, however, when born villain Henry Silva shoots Dominoe point blank in the face with a shotgun, literally blowing her whole face off, which Reynolds actually lets us see. And which also makes everything movie-credible when Dominoe shows up later, revealing Silva shot the wrong lady.
A lot more happens in the movie’s second half, but this is still pretty far from an action film. Sharky brings Dominoe to his weekend home where he says horrible things to her and they have a little slap fight. You watch while cringing, wondering if they are going to kiss in the next scene. Nope. First the lovable family man Nosh gets killed by Silva, THEN they kiss.
The crime plot here has to do with a high-class pimp, his heroin addicted brother (Silva), a crooked cop, and the newly-elected Governor of Georgia. The details of this conspiracy never really matter much, as it’s always pretty clear who needs to die by the end of the film. At one point a pair of ninjas show up. Sharky gets his ass kicked and graphically has some fingers cut off. Then he and what’s left of his crew arrest the Governor and kill Henry Silva.
Actually, they barely get that right. Silva murders Papa. He and Arch shoot each other until they’re out of bullets, but keep breathing. Sharky hardly does anything. His big action move is to quickly shoot Silva out a window before Silva can blow his own brains out. It’s not the big heroic cop ending you expect.
But that weirdness is part of the film’s attraction. It’s slightly to the left of a regular cop film. It’s not totally a surveillance film either because the mark gets her face blown off halfway through, after which it transforms into a conspiracy/romance plot.
Through it all, there’s Burt Reynolds, playing it quiet and cool. Even when he gets his fingers cut off, he won’t yell. The only time he raises his voice, it’s to tell the woman he loves “I outta punch your fucking lights out.” He’s so goddamn cool, he gets his whole team killed, and at one point interrupts the head-villain’s dinner to spill vital information that guy didn’t have, just to gloat. When that guy gets killed by someone other than Sharky, Reynolds beats up his dead body in impotent rage. I just don’t know. Reynolds directed this one. He was either completely clueless or doing this shit on purpose.