It’s revealing to watch F/X now and savor the details the filmmakers felt they needed to explain to the audience at the time, such as the title’s abbreviation of the phrase “special effects” or the broad strokes of working with squibs or the latex used to create a dummy head of an actor for a death scene. These moments are poignantly quaint for two reasons: Practical effects are increasingly going the way of the dodo in our everything-CGI culture, and, more resonantly, they conjure a time in which everyone wasn’t casually conversant in backstage Hollywood lingo, whether it pertains to special effects or box-office figures, particularly the latter, which we now discuss like horse races. Because of social media, everyone seemingly fancies themselves an insider now, and movies are promoted by satiating that portion of the audience’s vanity. F/X might’ve once scanned as an inside-baseball glance into the mechanics of making a movie, but now it registers as a blissfully naïve fantasy of privileged access.
The film has a good narrative hook that recalls the plot of Blow Out (which was once titled Special Effects). Rollie Tyler (Bryan Brown), a FX maestro for horror movies, is recruited by the justice department to fake an assassination of a key mafia turncoat (Jerry Orbach) that goes awry, leading to Rollie going on the lam. But the plot barely matters, and the glimpses into Rollie’s gifts for fashioning cinematic illusions are primarily relegated to the film’s climax. Director Robert Mandel and screenwriters Robert T. Megginson and Gregory Fleeman use the Hollywood-insider stuff as confetti for sprinkling atop a comedic, character-based thriller. F/X has a bifurcated narrative that’s unusual for a formally un-self-conscious genre film, as Rollie’s gradually demoted to supporting player to make room for homicide detective Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy), who arrives near the story’s midpoint to effectively take over the movie.
A big, powerful bull of an actor, Dennehy is so intensely masculine that he’s funny. If the special-effects jargon is ordinary now, the sight of someone like Dennehy as a star feels new again; he’s handsome and commanding, but he also has the rumbled presence of a working-class Joe who takes most of his meals in his car and who clearly enjoys a beer or 10 after his shift. The impersonally pristine prettiness that pop movies now require of their stars, male as well as female, isn’t a part of Dennehy’s genetic makeup, and Mandel’s sensitive to that and allows us to enjoy it. The image introducing Leo shows him in bed covered up entirely under blankets as a camera tracks over the room to reveal the leavings of a large Chinese dinner, a few beer cans, and a smattering of cracked peanuts. The entire character is revealed by this window dressing: Leo’s a lonely guy who personalizes “the job” in a manner familiar to most movie detectives. There are all sorts of other little comic touches like this, most memorably when Leo puts on reading glasses that are too small for him, causing him to resemble an aging owl. Dennehy and the filmmakers allow us to see the vulnerability under Leo’s gruff, bullying persona, and this unexpected display of empathy insidiously renders a questionably rogue cop likeable.
Certain pleasantries are lost in the midst of Mandel’s unconventionally casual handling of the narrative though. The criminal conspiracy driving the narrative has no surprises. Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček paints New York City in memorable noir colors that lend Rollie’s plight the tenor of a nightmare, but there’s no sense of dramatic escalation, and the villains are dull, white-bread bureaucrats. Most disappointingly, Rollie and Leo’s narratives don’t converge until the last five minutes of the film, which is a shame, because the actors playing them have considerable chemistry: Brown’s low-key virility pairs ideally with Dennehy’s facetious huffing and puffing. But F/X still ultimately resonates as the engaging work of talented professionals who’re having fun tweaking a traditional wrong-man thriller. The grace notes outweigh the missed opportunities.
There’s some softness and graininess, but the image boasts a pleasing range of warm colors, particularly in the nighttime cityscapes, which abound in lush noir reds, blues, and pinks, though blacks are occasionally inky and vaguely delineated. Background image clarity is often terrific, such as in a memorable shot in which one can see several city blocks behind two of the characters as they walk and talk, which fosters an impression of their vulnerability while boosting the film’s verisimilitude. Textures are also pronounced and detailed. The soundtrack is clean but a little flat, and the dialogue doesn’t always seem to be properly mixed in relation to the more elaborate diegetic effects, and so you may have to occasionally crank your volume to hear what the characters are saying (this sound disparity could partially be reflective of the low-budget film’s original source materials). Generally, this is an attractive, competently rendered transfer.
An interview with director Robert Mandel affectionately, obligatorily covers the film’s production basics, particularly working with the actors and the various special effects technicians. A vintage making-of featurette is even less memorable. Two theatrical trailers round out this barebones package.
An atmospheric, well-acted chase film receives a sturdy transfer and little else. Fans will still happily add this retro slice of practical effects geekery to their shelves.