F/X: Murder by Illusion 1986 ***

‘Nobody cares about making movies about people any more. All they care about is special effects…’ Ah, 1986. They thought they were teetering on the brink of a soulless void in cinema history, little did they know that the 80’s now look like a cottage industry of home-made produce, a humble farmer’s market of simple fare in comparison to today’s machine-tooled CGI abominations. F/X, or F/X Murder by Illusion as some territories knew it, sought to make a virtue of the public’s interest in effects, but we’re talking practical effects rather than computer driven ones, and so Robert Mandel’s thriller is reassuringly quaint in outlook.

F/X opens with a greatest hits of effects; squibs, explosives, fake blood, prosthetics, all in a film-within-a-film. The maestro behind them is Rollie (Bryan Brown) but the real artist is John Stears (Star Wars), who managed all the practical effects here. Rollie is hired by some mysterious suits to fake the murder of mob boss Nicholas DeFranco (the inimitable Jerry Orbach from Law and Order). But Rollie isn’t savvy enough to realise that he’s just a patsy, and is being set-up; in old-style Hitchcock fashion, Rollie has to go on the run to clear his name.

Entering the fray late, but effectively, is dogged detective Leo McCarthy (the late Brian Dennehy) who is tracking down Rollie, but beginning to twig that he’s on the edge of a conspiracy. Brown and Dennehy don’t get together until the final scene, but both hold their own here, propelling each plot line forward with effectively salty, knowing performances. And Mandel does very well with the physicality of the movie; presumably bigger stars were sought, but in lieu of Gibson or Ford, the money is ploughed into some great location photography of NYC by the wonderful Miroslav Ondricek (who called the shots for Anderson and Forman on O Lucky Man, and Amadeus respectively), plus some terrific stunt-work; there’s an excellent car chase here with pro second unit work.

F/X was a hit, spawning a sequel and a tv show, but perhaps the lack of star power held it back; either way, it’s an astute, entertaining B-movie that packs a punch right up to the final unmasking , and never sells the illusion theme short. Sometimes, entertainment is all we need; F/X has a dated idea that charms by sheer unfamiliarity. Oscar-winner Argo dramatised an actual story about how a collusion of Hollywood plasticity and politics might work together for the greater good, but the dark fantasy of F/X got before Now You See It, Mission Impossible and other illusion/heist capers. MGM catalogue link is below…


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  1. Nice review. I remember this one from back in the day but it’s been years and years since I’ve seen it. I do so miss the tactile, practical effects of yesteryear.

  2. I haven’t seen this since it came out but I remember really enjoying it. At least it felt like something different from the usual action fare at the time.

  3. I’ve never been a fan of Dennehy. I can’t point to any one single thing but whenever I see him all I can think of is “big fat loaf of bread” and isn’t what I want to be thinking when I watch a movie :-/

    As an aside, what is your writing regimen? I’m impressed that you churn out review after review and was wondering how you did it. I’m always looking for tips to tune up my own blog writing. If you don’t mind sharing…

    • I know what you mean, but if you ever get a chance, watch Dennehy go arthouse in Belly of an Architect, you get to see just how much of an actor he could be. EDIT: just saw that he passed away today (April 2020) saw him in Song of Sway Lake just last year.

      I’m reviewing for two other outlets, so I’m quite often away from my desk; today there’s just two cats chasing a wasp where my laptop is, I’m working in the field near my house. I write a week ahead with older films and passion projects, and auto-schedule them in for daily AM publishing. Then I drop in topical or deadline pieces, which are often written within seconds of PR access, to keep things fresh. Writing is, Richard Curtis taught me, a muscle you have to use every day, and it’s my morning work-out to start the day with a flex, and I enjoy every second of it. Thanks for asking!

      • Thanks for replying, appreciate it. You’d think by now I’d know that you just have to write, write, write. But I’m STILL looking for shortcuts, hahahahaa…

        • I have the luxury of waking up knowing that the blog goes to press. I read over what I wrote and only write if I think I can do better. The answer is usually yes, but the trick is to harness your passion for a subject if and when you feel it. Engage your passion every day and enjoy the freedom we have! When you’re fully engaged, the articles write themselves.

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