To put it mildly, Burt Reynolds has had an interesting career — feel free to read in the old Chinese blessing slash curse at this point. His charismatic presence with early recurring roles on the Gunsmoke and Riverboat television series got many people’s attention (mine included, as a kid transfixed with TV). He parlayed that into larger and larger film roles.
His rendition of the Lewis Medlock character in John Boorman’s adaptation of the great James Dickey novel, Deliverance, was the breakthrough impetus for that big screen vocation. Its impact skyrocketed him during the ’70s, and his subsequent films successfully propelled him to the #1 box office crown.
The world was his oyster.
Then, the ’80s collided with it like a bad meteor movie. The evidence becomes painfully clear when the films of that span are mentioned (some of which were purely for the paycheck, no doubt). Paternity, Stick, Rent-A-Cop, any of the Cannonball or Smokey and the Bandit sequels, among them. And one notorious flick in particular, signaled which direction his path then headed.
It’s not that all of them were particularly or uniformly bad, mind you. Okay, okay… Stroker Ace really and truly 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 and cable show career dump. Burt’s has been more phoenix-like. Some of the films during those Reagan years were entertaining genre-fare and unjustly maligned. Believe it or not, 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 actor’s unanticipated knack for film direction.
Adapted from William Diehl’s1 first novel, it had a lot of things going for it. Including, a really strong supporting cast in Rachel Ward (the Olivia Wilde equivalent for those of you born after Ronald Reagan was in office), 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 performer, Henry Silva, 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 was 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) was 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.”
For the most part, Reynolds showed unforeseen skill as a director, here. The tracking shot at the start of the film (as part of the opening credits) was particularly deft — and observe its reverse for the film’s closing credits. No doubt, Burt was helped tremendously by working with the late William A. Fraker in this endeavor. Seen today, the scene’s progression, right up to the director’s title credit, still has a marvelous flow to it, in fact.
And it employed the classic Randy Crawford / Crusaders song, 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 Reynold’s continual use of the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel skyscraper (in downtown Atlanta, Georgia) as a motif throughout the movie. Some would say it was used as a phallic symbol in the picture. Not surprising, given the testosterone clearly on display. Plus, Burt deserved a good bit of credit for staging some compelling action sequences, with him as a player in almost all of them. Never the shy one, he.
Even with its shadowy (and I freely acknowledge somewhat convoluted) plot, Sharky’s Machine still managed to include some gratifying touches in this 80s actioner. Some of its included martial arts aspects, which made their way into Hollywood film byway of the ‘Me Decade’s Kung Fu wave, are particularly 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) was a favorite of mine and choreographed quite well. It’s not a long fight, but it was brutally efficient and highlighted western and eastern fighting styles to great and succinct effect.
Additionally, the torture sequence on the boat was startling for its tension, explicit threat, and carnage (seen and unseen), and hardly mentioned these days, but should be. All of it made 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 and City Heat co-star Clint Eastwood, into more challenging roles. Certainly, not wait till later to try his hand at more 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, and headline TV’s Evening Shade [thanks, SFF], helped to resurrect that career in the 90s.
In particular, Sharky’s Machine as a film has suffered indirectly by Burt’s drop in fame, and been almost criminally forgotten, especially by what the studio has not provided aficionados or viewers. Warner Brothers released a barebones DVD back in October 1998 and without a hint of a needed update in the works. Worse, it’s horribly cropped. The feature’s original Panavision widescreen (1.85:1) framing was chopped to full screen (1.33:1) on the U.S. disc.
Thankfully, the WB finally released this in high definition on April 2015, with a closer aspect ratio (1.78:1) to its original.
To watch it again in its proper aspect ratio, and once more appreciate Mr. Fraker’s magnificent cinematography for this retrospective, I needed to get my hands on the Australian Region 4 disc. While the R4 DVD still had no extras or features to speak of, it remains the only way to genuinely appreciate the widescreen camera work of this neglected film.
Makes you wonder what the WB folk are thinking, or missing out on.
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 needle-dropped tunes by jazz and blues notables like Randy Crawford, Flora Purim, Peggy Lee, Manhattan Transfer, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Julie London, Chet Baker, Eddie Harris, and Doc Severinsen that will make any old-time music fans out there more than a little joyful.
At one time, I kicked myself by giving away my copy of that vinyl LP soundtrack years ago, which still is the only media you can find it on. I’ve fixed that by reacquiring the album and putting a turntable back into my life2. As I close this out, let me wish you a great weekend by way of song. The Somewhere, Someway track 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. ↩
- In early-2014, the Varese Sarabande label released the film’s soundtrack on CD, finally. ↩