Burt Reynolds stars in 1981's SHARKY'S MACHINE as Sharky, a tough narcotics cop in Atlanta who gets hosed by the department after a drug bust goes bad. He is transferred to the black hole of Vice, which is headquartered in the precinct basement and plays host to the city’s worst pimps, hookers, dopers, and lowlifes.
Sharky’s new boss, Lieutenant Friscoe (Charles Durning), and his new partners were once among the best cops in the city, but years of being humiliated, frustrated, and burned out have turned them into jelly. So when they get a chance to do some real police work on a case with an opportunity for them to make a difference, Sharky and his “machine” leap at it.
Slimy pimp Victor Scorelli (Vittorio Gassman) and gubernatorial candidate Thomas Hotchkins (Earl Holliman) are in cahoots, but there’s no evidence against them. Sharky puts an illegal round-the-clock surveillance on one of Scorelli’s girls, a classy thousand-buck-a-night hooker named Dominoe (Rachel Ward). Sharky’s initial discomfort in watching her night and day turns into love, and the case becomes a personal one after Scorelli’s crazed cokehead brother Carlo (Henry Silva) blasts her face off with a shotgun.
Reynolds’ most mature work as a director, SHARKY’S MACHINE stays pretty faithful to William Diehl’s source novel (BORN INNOCENT’s Gerald DiPego wrote the screenplay), though much of Diehl’s rich plot was lost in whittling it down to a two-hour running time. Some of the pieces, such as the exact nature of Scorelli and Hotchkins’ relationship, don’t fit together. It seems as though Reynolds was more interested in the characters and action setpieces anyway. He may have fallen too much in love with his cast, allowing the story to get away from him in favor of extemporaneous character-building moments among colleagues. It’s a violent movie, but Reynolds nicely leavens the brutality with humor.
While it’s a good thing that these scenes work, they do tend to drag down the pace during Act Two. Brian Keith (FAMILY AFFAIR), Bernie Casey (REVENGE OF THE NERDS), and Richard Libertini (THE IN-LAWS) deliver fantastic banter with Reynolds and Durning that plays more Wambaugh than Diehl. Casey and Reynolds in particular share two wonderful scenes, one in which Casey describes how he used Zen to face down death and a later one that pays it off. John Fiedler (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) and James O’Connell (DEATH HUNT) play the rest of Sharky’s machine. Action highlights include a shootout on a city bus, two expertly choreographed fights between Sharky and ninjas (!) in tight quarters, and a suspenseful stalking on the top floors of the Peachtree Plaza Hotel.
With Burt wearing his shorter “serious” toupee, one can infer SHARKY’S MACHINE meant a lot to him. To Warner Brothers (which produced it) and Orion (which released it) too. As a big Christmas release, it did okay business, but not as big as expected. This may have affected Reynolds a few years later when he adapted Elmore Leonard’s STICK, but veered away from it in favor of lowbrow humor and action beats that more closely adhered to his movie star persona.