"F/X" is a low-key thriller that makes no sense if you think about it too much. At the same time, it manages to engage the pulse, if not the brain. The DVD's picture and sound quality are disappointing, considering the movie's fairly recent vintage, but fortunately the plot holds up well enough to make us forget. In fact, the movie did so surprisingly well at the box office, there was a sequel about five years later. The sequel is nothing to talk about, but you'll have a good time with the original.
Bryon Brown ("Cocktail," "Gorillas in the Mist") stars as Rollie Tyler, a movie special-effects expert living and working in New York City. Thus the title, "F/X," standing for (special) effects and also a dead giveaway of the movie's contents. Namely, things are never quite what they appear to be. After an imaginative opening sequence, we find Rollie on a movie set being approached by a Justice Department agent (Cliff DeYoung) to do a special job. The government wants Rollie to stage the fake assassination of a mob boss for them. The object of the phony hit is Nick DeFranco (Jerry Orbach), a high-ranking gangster in the witness protection program who is about to testify against his old pals. The government wants the Mafia to think he's dead so they won't try to kill him before he spills the beans in court. But the operation goes wrong and DeFranco winds up actually dead, with everybody thinking Rollie is the killer! Poor Rollie; he's like Cary Grant in "North By Northwest," with the police, the government, and the gangsters all out to get him.
As expected from a film about a special effects man, the story takes a lot of twists and turns, and everything we see is not necessarily as it may be. As Rollie says, first he's hired to do a pretend murder, then there's a real murder, and then the people who hired him try to murder him. So he fights back the only way he knows how--by using special effects. Although the whole film is basically an extended chase, director Robert Mandel ("Perfect Witness," "School Ties," "The Substitute") makes it varied enough to sustain our interest; and the last thirty minutes or so are especially exciting.
Yet this isn't a film big on actual special effects as we've come to know them today. Filmed in 1985 and released in 1986, "F/X" predates modern digital technology and relies instead on good old-fashioned makeup, costumes, and minor pyrotechnics. Rollie's forte is deceiving the eye and ear, which he does in a number of surprisingly inventive and believable ways. Well, OK, maybe not always believable; let's just say it appears credible if one doesn't reflect on it further.
Anyway, it's the film's plot shifts and characterizations that make it worthwhile. Obviously, I can't say much about the plot turns or I'd spoil things, so let me describe a few of the major characters, starting with Bryon Brown. He's not your typical young-hunk hero. He's rather average of build, handsome and mature, with more machismo than two or three Hollywood heartthrobs put together. Yes, he has a requisite fight scene, but most of the time he's using his head.
Almost of equal importance is the policeman hot on his case, Lt. Leo McCarthy, played by Brian Dennehy. Dennehy is a giant panda of an actor who always occupies every inch of screen space, literally and figuratively; and whether he's playing a good guy or a baddie, he's always fun to watch. Here, Dennehy is the stereotypical, "Dirty Harry" type rogue cop who is always bending the rules to get what he wants.
Dennehy's partner is a chap named Mickey, played by Joe Grifasi, and together they add to the mystery and suspense while providing a degree of comedy relief. Fans of old radio may recognize the voice of longtime character actor Mason Adams as Col. Mason, head of the Justice Department's New York office. Cliff DeYoung as Lipton, the government agent, is sneaky and treacherous in a ferret-like manner. Jerry Orbach's gangster kingpin is appropriately smug and dapper in lounge-lizard style. Diane Venora has an altogether too small part as Rollie's girlfriend, Ellen. And Martha Gehman is tough and funny as Rollie's loyal, right-hand helper, Andy. Perhaps more than anything, it's this topnotch cast that makes us believe in the story's exaggerations so readily.
MGM offer the movie in both a standard full-frame and a 1.66:1 matted widescreen. The full-frame offers more top-to-bottom information, but the widescreen offers somewhat more left-to-right image. Both versions appear to have been cropped from a master that would have been interesting to see. In either case, though, the actual picture quality is mediocre. It is soft and faintly blurry, like a camera lens that isn't quite in focus. Colors range from bright to faded, and facial tones on individual characters can vary from a healthy glow to a pale sickliness from one scene to another. I suspect that the authoring shop, Laser Pacific Media Corporation, were sent a second or third-generation print to transfer, or they just did a fast-and-dirty job of reproduction.
Nor is the sound much better than average for a film of the eighties. It's in Dolby Stereo Surround, with a so-so stereo spread in the front channels, only some small action in the rears, a limited frequency range, a tiny bit of background hiss, and a few instances of extraneous bass noises. As if to make up for lost ground, the music behind the closing credits seems to blast away at us at a higher decibel level and with greater dynamics than anything else in the movie.
Beyond the feature itself there is little else on the disc: a pan-and-scan trailer, English and Spanish spoken languages, French and Spanish subtitles, and twenty-eight chapter stops. The MGM folks don't even include their usual informational booklet, only a card listing the film's cast and scene selections.
There isn't a lot to think about in "F/X." It's just a capable, old-style action film with a good cast and an assortment of sly plot surprises. If you don't take it too seriously, "F/X" can be a lot of fun. It's rated R for reasons beyond my understanding.