Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sharky's Machine - 1981

"Sharky's Machine" - 1981
Dir. by Burt Reynolds - 2 hrs. 2 min.

by Clayton Hollifield

It can be intensely frustrating when you can see that someone has good taste, and tries to synthesize those influences into something meaningful, and just can't quite get there.  Burt Reynolds both stars in and directs "Sharky's Machine," and it's a film that borrows from other, very well-regarded films, but it doesn't add up to be an all-time classic.  It's hard to say why exactly that is; there are some good scenes, good performances, genuinely shocking moments, but that doesn't add up to a must-see piece of creative work.  It adds up to something interesting (and not a dismissive "hmm, interesting, gotta go now") that will benefit if you have some affinity for any of the actors or the time period, and almost stands on it's own independently of that.

After a undercover drug sting goes south, Sharky (Burt Reynolds) is busted down to the Vice Department, which is the lowest of the low.  Busting hookers and the like is beneath Sharky's skills, which means that Sharky almost immediately gets bored and starts putting his skills to use, and that gets him into trouble.  There is a double murder in a hotel involving a john and a blind prostitute, and when Sharky starts pulling at the threads, things get complicated.  Sharky and his rag-tag crew (they're the other almost competent detectives in the Vice Squad) start surveillance on a beautiful escort (who is "seeing" the Mayoral candidate), who is eventually targeted for a hit by the same assassin.  Sharky's goal is to figure out who is behind all of this, before everyone dies.

The biggest thing that struck me about "Sharky's Machine" is that it felt like what would happen if you gave Burt Reynolds a budget, a top-loading VHS player, and tapes of "The French Connection," "Bullitt," and "The Thomas Crown Affair."  Now, there aren't any real car scenes here, and Reynolds himself might have been gun-shy about doing something like that and cementing himself as "the car guy," after "Smokey and the Bandit," and it's runaway success.  Nonetheless, like in the movies mentioned, there are a lot of slowly-paced scenes that might almost qualify as procedural, punctuated by moments of explosive violence.  As for the "Thomas Crown" influence, there seem to be a ton of loving shots of equipment and the characters' surroundings, something that gave TC a languid, vacation-y feel at times, and in "Sharky's Machine" lends an air of impatience.  And in terms of influence going in the other direction, the raw, off-color dialogue between the men involved in the surveillance feels like a direct impact on Quentin Tarantino's first two films.

These approaches add up to an interesting film; this isn't a movie that I had difficulty getting through at any point.  I particularly enjoy police/crime films of this vintage - they feel like an accurate snapshot of what things were like in actual places then, in a way that modern crime films rarely feel like.  Plus, the bad guy is sufficiently a monster, and the good guys are sufficiently barely competent (and there are a number of surprisingly nihilistic movies in this time period) that the outcome is far from a sure thing.  I never doubted that Sharky would go all in against Victor (Vittorio Gassman), it's just that I wasn't convinced that he'd get the job done without reliable backup.  Perhaps what's most surprising (and there are genuine, sometimes gruesome surprises) is what Sharky is willing to go through on behalf of the escort, Dominoe (Rachel Ward), whom he falls for from a distance.  "Sharky's Machine" is damn near a "nobody gets out alive" film, and even he doesn't get out unscathed.

So how does this all add up to less than the sum of it's influences?  I think that part of it is Burt Reynolds himself, in this particular role.  It's not to say that he hasn't made some iconic, fantastic films over the years, but those are sometimes anti-authority roles, and it was a little jarring to see him trying to enforce the law instead of dancing just on the other side of it.  Also, and I'm not saying that the three films I mentioned earlier were deliberately imitated, but if you're going to make a film in that vein, you're also stacking yourself (as an actor) against Steve McQueen and Gene Hackman at their very best.  There's a big part of me that wants to give Reynolds a big high-five for being willing to try to meet that standard, even if I felt like he didn't get there.  You'll never know if you don't try, right?  There are also some quirks to the film that felt like they weren't fully-baked, even if they were good ideas.  You have a film that basically about taking down a child trafficker, and out of nowhere, the main assassin has assistants, a pair of ninjas!  I don't know what else to call 'em, they literally kill a nightclub owner with nunchucks, which is a genre mash-up I wasn't prepared for.  There is no part of me that thinks "Sharky's Machine" would be better without the ninjas, but if you're going to head in that direction, I feel like things could have gotten a lot weirder (and this is a film that has one of it's main protagonists coked-up and literally screaming at his targets).

And the relationship between Sharky and Dominoe is complicated, to say the least.  It's a tough one to buy into for a few reasons.  First, she's bat-shit insane, but she's also a DON'T CALL ME A WHORE, I'M A DANCER!!!  So that comes with the territory.  Plus, Sharky falls for her "Rear Window" style, and she's not very sympathetic over the course of the film.  It doesn't feel very genuine, but then again, Sharky isn't the only person in the film who falls in love with her facade, so maybe Dominoe is supposed to be more of a muse-for-hire than a wife-candidate.

"Sharky's Machine" is a ragged film, not in terms of technical perfection (it's pretty smooth, at times), in terms of how it's influences have been integrated with one another.  More or less, I spent a lot of the film alternating between seeing what they were going for or were drawing on, and then being genuinely surprised at something that occurs on screen.  That suggests to me that there were plenty of good ideas present, enough to make this a fun, if uneven film, but the cake came out a little lopsided.  It's still a tasty cake, but I keep one eye on it, worried that the whole thing might topple over onto the floor.  But, you know, cake.

2.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

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