Wednesday 20 November 2019

Movie Review: Sharky's Machine (1981)

A police detective thriller and romance, Sharky's Machine features gritty violence and a sense of camaraderie, but also a klutzy plot and gauche dialogue.

In Atlanta, a botched drug bust results in narcotics police detective Tom Sharky (Burt Reynolds) being demoted to the scorned vice squad, reporting to the excitable Friscoe (Charles Durning). Sharky pulls together a team consisting of Papa (Brian Keith), Arch (Bernie Casey) and Nosh (Richard Libertini). They start to investigate a high-priced prostitution ring featuring $1,000 a night call girls entrapping politicians, including Governor candidate Donald Hotchkins (Earl Holliman).

Sharky sets up round-the-clock surveillance of an apartment occupied by call girl Dominoe (Rachel Ward), and starts to fall in love with her from a distance. The stakeout identifies the shadowy Victor (Vittorio Gassman) as a master criminal grooming women into prostitution from a young age and using them to manipulate political careers. When assassin Billy Score (Henry Silva) enters the scene and leaves behind a trail of murder victims, the vice investigation turns much more dangerous.

Featuring a plot dripping with sex as a weapon, corrupt politicians, victimized women, bloody murders and a detective itching to rehabilitate his reputation, Sharky's Machine should have been much better than it is. Directed by Reynolds and adapted from a book by William Diehl, the film sputters in fits and starts, with an inconsistent tone and misplaced emphasis.

Distancing himself from the frivolous comedies that made him famous, in this outing Reynolds finds a sturdy character on which to build a thriller. Sharky is serious, determined and thoughtful, a detective capable of uniting a "machine" around him, in this case a collection of capable but dispirited detectives. The film admirably explores an emerging team dynamic and invests the time to demonstrate a group of men (they are all men) gelling into a high functioning group.

The pacing and narrative progression are less impressive. The film is soaked in voyeuristic scenes of Sharky intruding on Dominoe's life and falling in love just by observing her. Worse still is a barely-there plot filled with unanswered questions, the antagonists in the form of criminal mastermind Victor and sleazoid politician Hotchkins stamped as evil by the script but otherwise undefined, their intentions and overall context left to the imagination.

Sharky's Machine is not helped by a wooden Rachel Ward performance. The role demands a muse-like commitment to etherality, but Ward is too stiff to deliver, and her scene of verbal and physical sparring with Sharky is an unmitigated disaster. Henry Silva fares worse, his character initially defined as a stone-faced drug-fuelled assassin before crossing the line to almost mythical indestructible status.

The scenes of tension and action are competently staged, and Reynolds boldly strides towards bloodier representations of violence spiced with a torture showdown to augment some grim back alley aesthetics. Sharky's Machine sometimes rumbles to life, but also occasionally misfires.

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