F/X is a pretty cool little thriller from 1986 that I think I saw back in the VHS days, but I didn’t remember it at all. And since Bryan Brown (THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH) on the poster looks like Roy Scheider to me, I was really picturing something different. Brown is Australian and is allowed to fully use his accent here, a rarity in American movies that I was prepared to credit to the international success of CROCODILE DUNDEE until I saw that this came out earlier in the same year. So instead I will credit the success off CROCODILE DUNDEE to the success of F/X.
Brown stars as Roland “Rollie” Tyler, a Hollywood (well, New York) special effects genius who seems to be considered the best in the business. And you know what that means: it opens with a scene of violence that turns out to be a film shoot. It’s a pretty good version of that cliche, because instead of a horror movie like usual (see: BODY DOUBLE, PET SEMATARY TWO) it’s a shootout in a restaurant. A guy catches on fire, aquariums get shot up, a bunch of live lobsters get loose. Good scene.
Rollie is approached on set by a dude named Lipton (Cliff De Young, DR. GIGGLES), who claims to be a big fan with some work for him. But the project turns out not to be a movie – he works for the Justice Department, and he wants Rollie to help him fake a death. Notorious mob boss Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach, BREWSTER’S MILLIONS) has turned state’s evidence, people are trying to kill him, if they can fake kill him maybe it will take the heat off until the trial.
He turns it down. But Lipton and his boss Colonel Mason (Mason Adams, TOY SOLDIERS) fuck with Rollie’s ego by saying they’ll go to one of his rivals. So the doofus comes back and says yes.
You get the tense spy movie planning section, like HIT! or MUNICH. Coming up with the idea. Demonstrating it by surprising Lipton with a fake gun, shooting at a monster dummy in his workshop. Meeting with DeFranco, making a cast of his face. Rollie comes up with a gun with blanks and a vest of squibs that he can set off by radio control. When Lipton convinces him that he’s the only one that can time it right, so he’s gotta be the shooter, Rollie seems to be thinking “oh shit, this is bad” as much as we are.
So Rollie, wearing a disguise much like the guy in the movie scene at the beginning, walks into an Italian restaurant to publicly “shoot” DeFranco. But as they’re driving away Lipton pulls a gun on him. He wrestles with the gun, the getaway car crashes, and he escapes.
(I would like to note that Lipton was completely full of shit when he dropped a bunch of knowledge about Rollie’s career and talked about how much he loved his movies. I don’t care if you’re a murderer – no true movie fan would want to kill one of the art form’s great innovators. You, sir, are a poser.)
You figure maybe Rollie gets what’s going on now, but then he calls Mason for help. He assumes it was only Lipton that turned on him! He’s supposed to wait there for some cops to come, but some poor schmo needs to use the payphone, so he steps away. Only when the cops pull up and immediately shoot the guy on the phone does Rollie finally seem to get it.
So it’s an on-the-run, trust-no-one paranoia kinda thriller. He doesn’t know who all is involved in setting him up, or what exactly he’s taking the fall for. He goes to his actress girlfriend Ellen (Diane Venora, THE 13TH WARRIOR), a likable character so it’s (SPOILER) very upsetting when a sniper kills her the next morning. It’s kinda good for the plot though because then he’s on his own, a regular guy having to figure out how to fight off professional killers – the scuffle with the sniper in Ellen’s apartment, leaping on him from above, knocking shit over, going for the kettle on the stove, is a good one.
That brings in Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy, COCOON), the homicide detective trying to figure out why an actress and a killer are dead in the same apartment. He checks out Rollie’s workshop, sees some weird gore props and wonders if “Maybe Tyler got tired of make believe, decided it was time for the real thing.”
But he seems to realize what a dumb theory that is, and his digging leads him to figure out the whole plot to fake DeFranco’s assassination (though by this point Rollie is thinking he really killed him). McCarthy becomes one of those obsessive maverick mystery solvers who nobody else understands is on to something. Especially the captain (Roscoe Orman – Gordon from Sesame Street!).
There’s a lady in an office named Velez (two-time Tony-nominee Jossie DeGuzman) who he goes to for help looking into databases. He’s obviously kind of a pain in the ass for her but at one point she thinks to check something that didn’t occur to him and discovers a correlation between files that’s a big lead for him. After he thanks her profusely and leaves there’s a shot of her sitting there smiling to herself, clearly satisfied with the praise and/or her knowledge that she did a good job. I like that.
Meanwhile, Rollie enlists his makeup assistant Andy (Martha Gehman, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN) to help him steal back his company van from an impound lot, using some of their pyrotechnics as a distraction. I like that she is sort of his partner but, since he recently lost his girlfriend, she never has to be the love interest. He does do that paternalistic thing where he ditches her on the side of the road for her protection. But first she helps him out, and they use their job skills, for example making themselves up to hide unnoticed among the homeless population. He has to escape from people who come after him, including a right-before-MANHUNTER Tom Noonan (who he pushes into a fountain).
I don’t know if it’s an Australian thing or what, but Rollie is not fuckin around. He kidnaps Lipton, puts him in the trunk of a car and drives around ramming the car into things. A POINT BLANK maneuver! And of course this is leading to a climax where he uses his knowledge, setting up illusions and tripwires and wiring explosives for a battle. He does a really cool trick with a mirror. It’s just a cool concept for a movie. I like anything about an effects guy or a stuntman using their job skills for (fictional) real life adventures.
One small thing I think could be better is the titles of the fictional movies Rollie has worked on. Overall the feel of the characters and the world are very grounded, very natural, but then they mention him working on movies called VERMIN FROM VENUS and PLANET OF THE FEMALE MUMMIES. Those are parody ‘50s drive-in titles, not movies that the to effects genius of the ‘80s would’ve worked on. Unless those are supposed to be EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY type comedies. I can see this goofball being from a comedy:
I doubt he’s from HELLRAISERS (or HELLRAZORS?)
If the memorabilia in Rollie’s workshop is supposed to come from his career then he’s worked on some really good ones. You might’ve noticed the framed one sheet for FADE TO BLACK behind the monster there, and next to it is Fulci’s ZOMBIE. I also spotted an 8 x 10 of Leatherface in the original THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Another cool movie-related background detail: since it was filmed in 1985, there’s a good look at a wall that some street team plastered up with RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and CODE OF SILENCE posters.
The makeup supervisor is Carl Fullerton (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2-III, REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS, WARLOCK, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM). It must’ve been interesting to have to make good makeup but also show on screen how it’s applied. John Stears also gets a credit as an effects consultant – he worked on everything from FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE to STAR WARS to THE MASK OF ZORRO.
It’s the third film from director Robert Mandel, who would later do THE SUBSTITUTE, and it’s written by Robert T. Megginson (CODE NAME: WOLVERINE) and Gregory Fleeman, who tried to sell it as a TV movie, but producer Jack Wiener (GREEN ICE) knew it was good enough for theaters. For some reason I was thinking Larry Cohen had written it – it seems like a really Larry Cohen premise to me, I guess – so it’s kind of funny that Lipton points to a picture of the baby from IT’S ALIVE in Rollie’s workshop. (In the world of F/X it comes from a movie he worked on called ROCK-A-DIE BABY.)
One of the producers was Dodi Fayed (CHARIOTS OF FIRE, HOOK), whose name of course we recognize because he died in the car crash with Princess Diana. Shit.
F/X had a sequel and a TV series and, though it never happened, a remake by Mandel was announced about ten years ago. (Maybe they had to cancel it because how do you outsmart corrupt cops and mobsters with your computer animation skills?) So it’s a bonafide intellectual property franchise trademark, but I don’t think it’s something that people discuss or think about very much these days.
That’s perfectly natural. It’s a humble thing. It’s one of those high concepts that’s perfect because it’s clever and cool but also so obvious other people must’ve been kicking themselves for not having come up with it first. It’s well executed, but not over-the-top at all. Pretty small and simple and getting by partly because it has good performances and gives its characters (including that computer lady) a little more humanity than it could’ve. We all like to get our socks knocked off, but this is more like getting a new pair of socks. And that’s good too. Sometimes better.