A helicopter circles over Atlanta, Georgia. The soundtrack kicks into Randy Crawford’s disco-funk classic: “Street Life.” A lone figure trudges along the train tracks. That man is hard-bitten cop, Tom Sharky (Burt Reynolds), en route to an undercover narcotics sting that unfortunately doesn’t go according to plan. After fellow detective Smiley (Daryl Hickman) blows his cover and the drug-dealer goes on a gun rampage across town, Sharky is demoted to vice.
He joins a squad of second-rate cops led by hot-tempered Lt. Friscoe (Charles Durning), who while investigating a high-dollar prostitution ring stumble on a trail of clues that connects fast-rising Senator Hotchkins (Earl Holliman) to an ominous crime-lord known only as the Man (Vittorio Gassman). During a month long stakeout, Sharky falls in love from afar with Hotchkins’ lover, a beautiful call girl called Domino (Rachel Ward), who is then brutally slain by psychotic, coke-snorting assassin Billy Score (Henry Silva). Devastated, Sharky whips his squad into a well-oiled “machine”, driven to take down the Man at any cost. But he’s in for a few surprises along the way.
Based on a novel by crime specialist William Diehl, this was the third movie directed by Burt Reynolds, following redneck chase flick Gator (1976) and woeful black comedy, The End (1978). Some have suggested that with Clint Eastwood then making redneck comedies, most famously Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Reynolds fancied stomping around his cop thriller turf. Which is selling Burt short really, since he already proved he could cut it in gritty police fare with Hustle (1975). The difference being, Sharky’s Machine was a box-office hit, indeed the last major one of Reynolds’ career.
It’s an engaging pulp thriller, briskly handled by Reynolds and well-photographed by William A. Fraker with some striking set-pieces. In addition to the arresting opening scene, Reynolds pulls off a few visual coups, such as the disorienting murder of a blind prostitute atop a revolving bed and the jaw-dropping climactic stunt that saw stuntman Dar Robertson fall 220-feet from Atlanta's Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel. It set a record as the highest ever free-fall drop from a building and still holds to this day. However, Reynolds also makes a few elementary errors prone to actor-directors, such as his tendency to keep the camera trained on himself during other characters’ dramatic moments, and occasionally struggles to keep things under control.
At any given moment the film can lurch from stylish to crass, such Rachel Ward introduced with a camera panning upwards along her see-through skirt; a sudden detour into kung fu territory, when knife-wielding ninjas slice off Sharky’s fingers; or Henry Silva’s hysterical hitman, who draws as much laughter as chills. There is also a bizarre detour - missing from some prints - wherein Charles Durning delivers a lengthy monologue about his Vietnam War days. He rambles on, presumably for some kind of significance, until we realise Sharky has fallen asleep. The pulpy plot weaves in a far-fetched conspiracy together with a necrophiliac romance straight out of Laura (1944), while the supporting cast is peppered with interesting character actors. You’ve got Brian Keith as paunchy, over-the-hill Papa, blaxploitation vet Bernie Casey as the Zen obsessed Arch, sitcom regular Richard Libertini as jittery surveillance expert Nosh, and even John Fiedler (Piglet from Winnie the Pooh!) as an ingenious forensic scientist who just loves being in the thick of things. All interesting characters, but given short shrift by Reynolds, particularly in the chaotic climax that sees half of them blown away (Durning just disappears from the story!) so that Burt can take centre stage. Aside from a few stylish bossa nova numbers, the sub-Las Vegas lounge soundtrack is seriously sub-par.