"Sharky's Machine" should become the runaway box-office smash of the season, unless a vast moviegoing public has suddenly sworn off glossy, viciously provocative diversion. Directing his own starring vehicle, that sly boots Burt Reynolds gives the audience a shamelessly lurid but stylish going-over, while putting a clever new wrinkle or two on his own status.
In fact, "Sharky's Machine" completes an unofficial exchange of identities between Reynolds and his pal Clint Eastwood, who decided to go mellow two years ago in "Every Which Way But Loose," a comedy influenced to a considerable extent by Reynolds' light-hearted, bucolic hits. Before it went into production, Reynolds began referring to his new movie as "Dirty Harry Goes to Atlanta." The nickname fits, but Reynolds also has a few surprises up his sleeve, some amiably wacky, some gruesomely violent and still others gruesomely wacky.
Reynolds as Sharky is a tough cop demoted from narcotics to vice after getting involved in a shootout with a desperate drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta. Although Sharky is set up by a suspiciously blundering colleague and narrowly escapes death, he succeeds in gunning down the trigger-happy dealer. However, a couple of civilians get winged in the cross-fire, evidently obliging the department to bust or transfer him. The "machine" consists of the colorful new colleagues he discovers down in the basement, where the vice squad is humorously located. He joins forces with this eccentrically amusing crew -- Charles Durning, Brian Keith, Bernie Casey, Richard Libertini, John Fiedler -- to concentrate on a mysterious international racketeer, Vittorio Gassman, who appears to be using a stable of call-girls to buy political influence, particularly with the respectable hypocrite favored to become the next governor, Earl Holliman.
Sharky & Co. set up 24-hour surveillance of Rachel Ward, the dreamiest number in the stable. Known as Dominoe, she seems to have Holliman wound securely around a slim, well-manicured finger. Watching her surreptitiously also begins to stir lovesick longings in Sharky. Combining aspects of "Laura" and one of his own movies, "Hustle," Reynolds brings Sharky and Dominoe into the same orbit after Henry Silva, a shadowy assassin, unloads his shotgun in the face of a girl who is presumed to be the bewitching Dominoe.
Can a solitary, hard-bitten cop who conceals a tender, protective nature underneath his rugged exterior actually find solace with a spoiled, luxurious hooker? Reynolds ends up fudging the romantic question. However, it is amusing to see the elements Reynolds works into this fundamentally gratuitous, disreputable entertainment.
Reynolds is not about to let the undercurrents of romantic vulnerability and professional attachment totally domesticate this thriller. Indeed, he tends to overcompensate on the violent side by allowing too many characters to get blown away, especially the cop colleagues who have ingratiated themselves with the audience, and by introducing a sustained atrocity sequence, combining excruciating motifs from "The Yakuza" and "The Deer Hunter."
The classiest aspect of the production is the pictorial glamor and dynamism achieved by Reynolds and cinematographer William Fraker. "Sharky's Machine" always looks alive, and the new architecture on Atlanta's skyline suggests an almost surreal criminal backdrop. Reynolds and Fraker are so fascinated by the form and reflective surfaces of the Peachtree Plaza, that they use this great architectural prop as suggestively and humorously as they can.