‘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…