Sharkey’s Machine was directed by Burt Reynolds, released in 1981 and remains the most successful box-office movie directed by Reynolds. It has a cast that includes Vittorio Gassman, Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Earl Holliman, Rachel Ward, Bernie Casey, Henry Silva, and Richard Libertini. While these names may not ring an immediate bell, once you see them on screen you will recognize their familiar faces.
Burt Reynolds plays an Atlanta narcotics officer named Tom Sharkey. As the movie opens Sharkey is in the midst of an undercover drug deal but is interrupted by another plainclothes police detective who repeatedly calls out Sharkey’s name causing the drug dealer to panic and began shooting. He vows not to be taken alive and as he is fleeing the scene he takes a woman hostage and ends up on a city bus. As Sharkey and other officers move in shots are exchanged, leading to the death of the drug dealer and a civilian who was seriously wounded. As a result of this deal gone bad, Sharkey is demoted to the Atlanta vice squad—considered the worst assignment in the police department.
While sitting in the basement to which the vice squad has been relegated, Sharkey and his partner discover a ring of high-priced prostitutes—to the tune of $1,000 per night (and that’s 1981 dollars). Sharkey and the rest of his crew, now known as “the Machine,” follow up on the lead and began investigating this ring of high-priced hookers. Their lead is a hooker named Domino (Rachel Ward) and Sharkey’s Machine begins 24-hour surveillance of her penthouse apartment. Sharkey literally never leaves his post continuously watching and listening in on Domino’s life. During their surveillance, Sharkey and Co., discover that Domino is having a relationship with Hotchkins, a candidate running for governor as well as the appearance of a mysterious crime kingpin known as Victor who also shows up at Domino’s apartment. Victor has apparently been controlling Domino since she was a young girl, but now she wants out. Victor agrees but forces her to have sex with him one last time.
The next day, Sharky witnesses (what appears to be) Dominoe get seriously blown away with a shotgun (that is “three inches under legal”) blast through her front door, killing and mutilating her face beyond recognition. Sharky has privately developed feelings for her while watching her through binoculars and listening to her bugged conversations. The killer is known as “Billy Score,” (Henry Silva who always plays a deranged bad guy) is a drug addict, and Victor’s (the mysterious crime boss) brother. Victor controls Score but also the gubernatorial candidate Hotchkins, who is in love with Domino but is blackmailed by Victor.
Surprisingly, Domino walks into her place and is told that her friend Tiffany used her apartment and was mistakenly blown away by Score. Domino halfheartedly leaves with Sharky to be hidden away at his childhood home. To make matters worse, Sharkey’s friend and electronics expert Nosh informs him that the surveillance tapes are gone, begging the question who is the traitor within the department. Nosh is subsequently killed by Score off-screen. A furious Sharkey threatens Victor at his apartment in the Westin Peachtree Plaza and classically vows to bring him to justice. Victor is stunned to be told by Sharky that Domino is still alive and can put him away.
Sharkey is then attacked and confronted by Smiley (a fellow officer) who cuts off two of Sharkey’s fingers while trying to extract Domino’s whereabouts. Sharkey manages to attack and kill Smiley and escape. Later, Sharkey and what is left of his machine take Domino to a Hotchkins political rally where the candidate is placed under arrest. Seeing their lives fall apart around them, Victor and Score become hostile and Score shoots and kills his brother. Sharkey and his machine are right on the scene. Score is pursued, but seems like a ghostly apparition appearing and vanishing, killing “Papa” (Brian Keith) and seriously wounding Arch (Bernie Casey). Sharkey shoots Score, who falls through a window falling to his death. Sharkey then returns to his childhood home, where Domino is now living.
Sharkey’s Machine is a vast departure from Burt’s typical late 1970’s-1980’s films (i.e. Smokey and the Bandit) and he does a damn good job of it. Many people compare Sharkey’s Machine to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, but I disagree. Sharkey’s Machine is grittier than the Dirty Harry series and has a better supporting cast. While Dirty Harry has “bad guys,” they are not nearly as treacherous as the world of expensive prostitutes and ruthless pimps and drug lords. Moreover, the 220 foot fall from the Hyatt Regency Hotel remains the highest free-fall stunt ever performed from a building for a commercially-released film. The fall was performed by legendary stunt man Dar Robinson.
The problem that both the Dirty Harry series and Sharkey’s Machine face is that they both play on a tired theme: police drama. The cop-genre, though, has been with us since Hollywood started and will probably continue on ad infinitum. Reynolds makes the best of things, though, making Sharkey’s Machine worthy of viewing.