Friday, January 22, 2021

Revisiting Sharky's Machine

Sharky's MachineEver harbor fond memories of a film you saw as a kid, then watch it again as an adult? Do that at your own peril, pal. Turns out you really can’t go home again, so to speak, but you might have fun trying.

Awhile back my husband and I sat down to watch Sharky’s Machine, a 1981 gritty crime thriller starring and directed by Burt Reynolds. We both originally watched it when we were too young to fully get it, possibly on HBO or cable. We couldn’t recall the where of it, only that we remembered Sharky as a badass with a cool name.

On our adult viewing, it looked a bit different. It’s hard to define – it wasn't good but not entirely bad, either; you could tell it was trying for something, a style, a mood, an artsy feel. As my husband put it afterwards, “I wouldn’t exactly call it good; it’s ambitious. It’s bizarre and trippy and very ’70s.” (Even though it came out in 1981, the lingering mist of the '70s was very much alive, especially in this film.)

It also wasn't exactly politically correct, to put it gently. It felt very much of another time, leaning into some clich├ęs about tough cops, criminals and prostitutes. Although set in Atlanta, there's not a lot of racial diversity (even among extras in crowd scenes) except for Sharky's partner and some criminals (casting should've been better on this note). 

Also, despite being set in the South, the only one in the entire movie with a Southern accent is a little girl, who’s in it for a minute. Seriously, no one even tries to do a half-assed accent. As someone who lived in the South for many years and has been to Atlanta several times, I can tell you a lot of people had a strong accent. You just can't ignore it. Unless you're Burt Reynolds, in which case you're like nah, I do what I want. As there wasn't much in the film that felt like the South at all, I imagine many viewers forgot it was supposed to be Atlanta and actually didn't notice the utter lack of Southern drawls.

As to the plot, Sharky (Reynolds) is a narcotics cop with the Atlanta PD. A situation goes bad, and he gets demoted to vice. That’s where he ends up investigating a high-class prostitution ring. He becomes obsessed with the young, beautiful Dominoe, a high-priced call-girl who’s in danger because she knows too much about a prominent client. Roger Ebert gave it 3 out of 4 stars back in the day. Side note: It was adapted from a book by William Diehl.

Without further ado, here are highlights of notes I made as we took a trip down gritty, atmospheric memory lane with Sharky’s Machine.

***
Scene: Bad guy shoots hood of car once, it instantly erupts in billowing flames.
Me: How did one shot make it blow up like that?
Husband: It’s the ’70s, baby, everything was better.
***
Cheesy dialogue: Now back off, or all these chumps on this bus are dead!
***
So much cigarette smoke.
***
Everyone listens to jazz. Young, old, in aerobics class – it’s all jazz, all the time. They had a world of great music from the ’70s that could’ve made a killer soundtrack, but not one character so much as turns on a top 40 radio station. I know that was part of the whole mood of the film, but it was just so. much. jazz.
***
There’s a long shot of a skyscraper as cool jazz plays – featuring a xylophone. That’s right, xylophone-driven jazz that goes on and on and on.
Husband: Wow, this is a long-ass shot.
***
Cops are busting hookers at a rally for a gubernatorial candidate. That’s right, the place cops go to bust hookers is a political rally.
***
Husband: I like how these ’70s heroin dealers dress like the VP of marketing. (The drug dealer was wearing a three-piece suit.)
***
The vice cops have what’s basically a cage they cram hookers into like sardines, packed beyond reason.
***
Sharky's partner tells the story of responding to a domestic dispute involving a man beating a woman. The man pulls a gun on the officer when he arrives. It gets diffused somehow, so Sharky's partner just leaves, no arrest even though he just had a gun pointed at him, and tells the woman who was beaten: “He’ll be alright. Just tell him you love him or something.” Dude, no. Just no.
***
There are ninjas. Wait, there are NINJAS?!
***
Vice cops discover a murder scene and won’t call in homicide investigators.
Husband: “Everything about this is so insanely wrong. It’s like no, we didn’t notify homicide.”
***
Husband: “The gender politics of this movie are troubling.”
***
The head of Atlanta's crime world seemed to be a cravat-wearing Italian pimp.

To conclude, this movie was a hot mess, but an interesting mess. Also, it's a film that many people seem to remember fondly as being gritty and badass. What I'm trying to say is, you might think this movie's cool like some reviewers did, or you might find it interesting to watch *because* it's such a hot mess from another time. Either way, if any of this sounds intriguing to you, whether as serious fare or something to goof on with friends, you might want to give it a watch as a window into a different era of filmmaking. Keeping in mind the time period it was made and that it includes material that is never politically correct. Like, at all. It's got some content that many would consider offensive. So be warned, some of it is problematic, and do not watch with kids. The end.

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