|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 20 October 1998|
Probably Burt Reynolds' best movie as a director, "Sharky's Machine" is a brisk, efficient latter-day film noir; the plot (from the novel by William Diehl) is satisfactory if familiar, the characters are standard but well-played by an excellent tough-guy cast that seems carefully hand-picked. When it was first released, the movie was regarded as excessively violent, even crudely brutal, but the excesses of the years since have made this one seem almost tame, at least in terms of excessive gore. But Reynolds handles the violence so vividly that it still has considerable impact, even on video, even on this unfortunately panned-and-scanned DVD.
Reynolds is Sharky, an Atlanta police detective who mishandles a bust -- in the movie's well-staged opening scene -- badly enough that he's demoted to the disreputable vice squad. But even there, he is drawn to bigger issues. When a two-bit hooker is busted, she turns out to have a list of phone numbers of much higher-priced prostitutes, and Sharky convinces the vice squad captain (Charles Durning) to allow him and the others (Brian Keith and Bernie Casey) to begin surveillance of one of the hookers, the gorgeous Domino (Rachel Ward), to whom Sharky is soon attracted, even from the building across the street from her luxurious penthouse.
Domino has many clients, but she's falling in love with Hotchkins (Earl Holliman), a rising politician who promises to marry her after the election. However, another of her lovers is Victor (Vittorio Gassman), the head of Atlanta's underworld, and a long-time target of Sharky. We learn, but Domino doesn't, that Victor is secretly the power behind Hotchkins. We've already seen drug-addicted hitman Billy Score (Henry Silva), Victor's younger brother, at work, so we're not surprised when he blasts through Domino's door, evidently killing her.
But in a plot twist altogether too similar to the classic "Laura," Domino's not dead after all. Sharky takes her into hiding, and prepares for a showdown with Victor and Hotchkins.
Smoothly made, and making great use of Atlanta locales (catching the city in the middle of its phenomenal growth), "Sharky's Machine" is an efficient entertainment machine itself. The plot is too familiar -- plays-by-his-own-rules cop vs. the big gang boss -- but Reynolds and screenwriter Gerald Di Pego treat it as if it's still worth telling, and they make it so. The writing is tough-guy amusing, not jokey like too many other Burt Reynolds movies; we believe the situations and the characters, at least for as long as the movie runs. Only the scene in which Sharky is tortured goes on too long, but like Marlon Brando, Reynolds seems to enjoy being beaten up on screen, as long as he gets to have it out with the bad guy by the end.
The cast is particularly good. Durning, Keith and Casey make a terrific backup to Reynolds -- I guess they are Sharky's Machine -- and each has a scene in which to stand out. It's unusual finding Richard Libertini in a non-comic role, but he's also fine as Sharky's electronics-expert buddy. Earl Holliman is the only weak element among the actors, playing every scene just a little too broadly. Vittorio Gassman is handsome enough that we buy Domino's initial connection with him, but he also exudes corrupt power -- he's pretty scary.
Not, however, as scary as Henry Silva who, when he has the right role, is one of the scariest actors who's ever lived -- and he has a hell of a role here, as the mad hitman Billy Score. He's constantly high on at least cocaine, every muscle in his face drawn and tense; he ranges from hysterical laughter to panic-stricken terror to paroxysms of brotherly love. In a long career of playing astonishing creeps, this may be Silva's high-water mark of creepiness. It's an extravagant but controlled performance, and Billy Score is one of the most memorable villains of the 1980s.
The transfer used for the Warner Bros. DVD is crisp and clear; it's too bad they didn't bother to provide a letterboxed print, as William A. Fraker's gleaming, shadowy photography was beautifully composed for wide screen. The only extras are the plentiful chapter stops.
While not a classic, "Sharky's Machine" is a good cop thriller, and deserves to be better known.