Monday, January 31, 2011

Burt With A Badge: Sharky’s Machine (1981)

Going into this movie I knew one thing, which I’d heard from a classmate who’d watched it on cable. At some point, a guy has a piece of glass shoved into his mouth and is then punched repeatedly in the face. The scene was described to me in such detail that I remembered it lo these many years later.

Like so much I learned on the schoolyard, this is completely untrue. Nothing even close to it occurs. On the other hand a ninja is shot with a spear gun, which I chalk up as a considerable improvement.

Burt Reynolds directs as well as stars in this adaptation of a novel by William Diehl. A drug buy arranged by Atlanta narcotics cop Tom Sharky goes chaotically wrong in the opening sequence, which includes some of the loudest gunshots I’ve ever heard in a movie. For his sins Sharky is cast into the department’s lowest circle, literally and figuratively: the vice squad, made up of misfits and short-timers. They’re content to bust streetwalkers, but Sharky has his sights set on a slick operator (Vittorio Gassman) with ties to the department and local power brokers. Soon the titular apparatus is running multiple off-the-books wiretaps and Sharky finds himself obsessed with Gassman’s pride, the lovely Dominoe (Rachel Ward).

That the apparent misspelling of her name is not only deliberate but a plot point is an indication of the kind of movie Sharky’s Machine is. Occasionally sloppy and coarse, but on the whole surprisingly effective. It’s the find of this utterly unmotivated one-man blogathon.

Burt fills the movie with his pals, old pros he worked with repeatedly like Charles Durning, Brian Keith and Henry Silva. His smartest casting decision was the then-unknown but wholly beguiling Ward. (Granted, I am susceptible to tall, regal, husky-voiced brunettes.) Yes, the Reynolds/Ward scenes borrow liberally from Laura. But if you’re going to borrow, why not do so from the best?

ASIDE: After watching the film I found the site for Rachel Ward’s production company. She expresses amazement “that anyone could want any information beyond the breasts and pouts ... so readily available on Google” and includes information on her latest film Beautiful Kate, which she wrote and directed from a novel by Newton Thornburg (Cutter and Bone). It stars her husband Bryan Brown and Ben Mendelsohn, so electric as Uncle Pope in Animal Kingdom.

As a director, Burt makes smart use of the Atlanta locations. And there’s a relaxed rhythm to his storytelling that makes room for compelling, off-beat material like Bernie Casey’s description of his Zen reaction to almost getting shot in the line of duty. Sharky’s Machine bears out what Burt’s two previous police dramas have shown: that in his prime he wasn’t interested in supercop heroics but the bonds between lawmen, the moments when things go awry. His detectives are more Barney Miller than John McClane.