It's not that all of them were particularly or uniformly bad. Okay, okay... Stroker Ace really does suck. Although, I refuse to pile on since the man did pay for that transgression by meeting the future ex-Mrs. Reynolds (Loni Anderson) in that shoot. I guess it's too easy for some to disparage the former box office king's body of work these days. Still, it's not like we're not talking about a Steven Seagal, direct-to-video career dump. Burt's has been more phoenix-like. Some of the films during those Reagan years were entertaining genre-fare and unjustly maligned. In fact, I still have the DVD of Heat, (not Michael Mann's crime masterpiece but the adapted William Goldman novel from '86) in my library. But before his métier missteps, Reynolds did accomplish something notable at the start of that decade. He directed (his third outing behind the camera) and starred in the highly underrated 1981 thriller, Sharky's Machine. It remains a brutal yet exciting film that played to the actor's strengths and displayed the man's directorial knack.
Adapted from William Diehl's* first novel, it has a lot of things going for it. Including, a really strong supporting cast in Rachel Ward (the Olivia Wilde equivalent for those born after the 80s), Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Bernie Casey, Richard Libertini, and Earl Holliman. Not to mention a scenery chewing performance by Vittorio Gassman and another menacing role for the undervalued actor, Henry Silva (who I saw just the other day), as the baddies. As well, I think the film's storyline provides some thought-provoking contrasts (with screenwriting credit to Gerald Di Pego). It certainly retains some superb aspects of bleaker crime films of the 70s (the use of the late Hari Rhodes of Detroit 9000 fame in a memorable early appearance is a wonderful touch by the filmmakers) while playing out against the newer, more sanguine era we were entering. One can see remnants of the previous decade's decline and the introduction of the spending excesses to come (along with the big hair and padded shoulders, and the approaching Just Say No campaign). Even its purposeful humor (another trait of the good ol' boy Reynolds' screen personality) is used effectively to balance out some of the grim and surprising violence (for its day) in the film.
"I'm gonna pull the chain on you, pal. And you wanna know why? 'Cause you're fucking up my city. 'Cause you're walking all over people like you own them. And you wanna know the worst part? You're from out of state."Street Life, convincingly to set the mood for that entire sequence. If you think about it, all this was 16 years before Quentin Tarantino would re-use the same tune for 1997's Jackie Brown in an equally downright inner-city themed excerpt. In looking back at this film, I couldn't help but notice director Burt's continual use of the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel skyscraper (in downtown Atlanta, Georgia) as a motif throughout the movie. Some would say it is used as a phallic symbol in the picture -- not surprising given the testosterone clearly on display. Plus, I think Burt deserves a bit of credit for staging some compelling action sequences, with him as an actor in almost all of them (never the shy one, he).
Even with its shadowy (and I freely acknowledge convoluted) plot, Sharky's Machine still manages to include some gratifying touches in this actioner. Some of its included martial arts aspects, which made their way into Hollywood film byway of the previous 70s Kung Fu wave, are well done. As it happens, the fight sequence in Nosh's basement between Sharky and the Chin brothers (portrayed by the great Bruce Lee ally and famed martial arts instructor, Dan Inosanto and Weaver Levy) is a favorite of mine and choreographed quite well. It's not a long fight, but it is brutally efficient and highlights western and eastern fighting styles to great effect. Additionally, the torture sequence on the boat is startling for its tension and carnage (seen and unseen), and is hardly mentioned these days (but should be). All of it makes for a highly entertaining thriller that returned substantial box office back in its day and showed audiences that this actor could deliver as a filmmaker, as well. It's too bad Burt Reynolds didn't capitalize on this film and stretch out (like his friend Clint Eastwood) into more challenging roles or not wait till later to try his hand at additional directing duties. The dearth of these meant a considerable slump we'd have wade through till his noteworthy supporting roles in Striptease and Boogie Nights helped to resurrect that career in the 90s.
barebones DVD back in October 1998 and with not a hint of a needed update in the works. Worst, it's badly cropped. The feature's Panavision widescreen (1.85 : 1) framing is chopped to full screen (1.33 : 1) on the U.S. disc. To watch it again in its proper aspect ratio, and once more appreciate the magnificent cinematography of the late William A. Fraker, for this retrospective I had to obtain the Australian Region 4 disc. The R4 DVD still has no extras, but it's the only way to really appreciate this neglected film (and makes you wonder what the WB folk are thinking). Lastly, if for nothing else watch this film just to listen to one of the absolutely great soundtracks ever compiled for a genre film. It's a wondrous mix of jazz and blues tunes by greats like Randy Crawford, Flora Purim, Peggy Lee, Manhattan Transfer, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Julie London, Chet Baker, Eddie Harris, and Doc Severinsen. I still kick myself to this day for losing my copy of that vinyl LP soundtrack years ago, which still is the only media one can find it on.
As I close this out, let me wish you a great weekend by way of the Somewhere, Someway tune used as the film's love theme, and sung by the great Sarah Vaughan. Enjoy.
* Trivia: author William Diehl has a cameo in the film and plays Percy the pimp in the Vice Squad room scene. Diehl was fifty years old and already a successful photographer and journalist when he decided he had not heeded his life calling and began to write that first novel.