The Film: 4/5
A longtime staple of home video and pay cable, the crafty 1986 thriller F/X is making its debut on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics line.
Rollie Tyler (Bryan Brown) is the best special effects artist in the film industry. No wonder he’s been approached by Justice Department representative Lipton (Cliff De Young) to put his considerable skills with squibs and latex creations to work staging the assassination of Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach), a mobster who ripped off his old family for a lot of money and is turning federal witness to save his skin. At the eleventh hour, department director Mason (Mason Adams) convinces Rollie to play the role of DeFranco’s assassin to make sure the fake killing is carried off without a hitch. Rollie fulfills his obligation and pockets a cool $30,000, but once the job is finished, Lipton attempts to take him out in order to tie up any loose ends. Rollie escapes and goes into hiding while Mason and his underlings paint the veteran effects man as DeFranco’s murderer while working to snuff him out before he can blow their little scheme wide open. Hard-nosed NYPD cop Lt. Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy), the man who arrested DeFranco in the first place, is none too thrilled at what happened to the mob stoolie and makes it his business to go over the heads of his superiors and get to the bottom of things. He soon realizes that Rollie may in fact be innocent, and the paths of the two men will cross when Rollie is forced to pull out every trick in his repertoire to clear his name and bring the ones who set up him for a fall to justice.
F/X is the cinematic equivalent of a good page-turning paperback thriller, with its twisting plot and colorful characters sprucing up the kind of “wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time” narrative that Alfred Hitchcock mastered several times over. Director Robert Mandel (The Substitute), working from a script by Robert T. Megginson and Gregory Fleeman, has crafted an effective suspense yarn with an interesting hook and an unlikely but interesting hero in seasoned special effects technician Rollie Tyler, played with the perfect combination of stoicism and smarts by Australian film and television star Bryan Brown (Breaker Morant) in a rare leading role in an American movie. Brown has the acting chops and rugged charisma to make Rollie a likable lead character whose actions can be seen more as self-preservation than heroic but wants desperately to protect the loved ones in his life who could get caught up in the crossfire.
It’s no surprise that Brown handles the fist fights and car chases with emotion and professionalism, but he also convinces in the scenes where Rollie practices his chosen trade in movie special effects. The character is clearly cut from the mold of legendary make-up effects artists such as Dick Smith and Tom Savini who excelled in creating realistic violence on screen. Production designer Mel Bourne, who worked with Woody Allen on Manhattan and Michael Mann on Thief, has a blast adorning the walls of Rollie’s apartment/workshop with posters for Fade to Black and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie as well as stills of the evil baby from Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive and Lon Chaney Jr. in full Jack Pierce make-up as the Wolf Man.
Best known for all eternity as the man who gave Rocky Balboa his soundtrack for victory, Bill Conti contributes a rousing and at times playful orchestral score that accentuates the action set-pieces and quieter character beats of F/X wonderfully while never seeming out of place (a brief appearance from “The Heart of Rock ‘n Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News, not so much). The cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek (O Lucky Man!, Amadeus) captures the busy daytime city streets of mid-80’s Manhattan with bold brightness and lends certain scenes an atmosphere of menacing paranoia through effective lighting. Keeping the action moving at a pace that never drags is the precision editing by the great Terry Rawlings, best known for his work on Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpieces Alien and Blade Runner.
Mandel was recruited to direct F/X based on his experience in Off-Broadway theater, so the performances he extracts from his stars and supporting cast is quite laudable. Brian Dennehy gets high marks for his portrayal of the determined Lt. McCarthy because he manages to steal almost every scene he’s in simply through his underrated screen presence even though his character doesn’t make his first appearance until the movie is well into its second act. The late Mason Adams (Lou Grant) is excellent as the officious government sleazebag pulling the strings to send Rollie into his unrelenting nightmare, and Cliff De Young (Blue Collar) backs him up with panache as his two-faced underling. Jerry Orbach, another acting great who has long departed this mortal coil, gives the role of the underhanded mobster his all with only a few brief scenes to work his magic. Diane Venora (The Insider) makes the most of her limited screen time as Rollie’s actress girlfriend, but it’s Martha Gehman (The Legend of Billie Jean) who gets to play the true heroine of the film as his loyal effects assistant. Joe Grifasi (Natural Born Killers), Trey Wilson (Raising Arizona), and Roscoe Orman (Sesame Street) deliver fine performances as McCarthy’s colleagues in the NYPD. Tom Noonan (Manhunter) pops up in a handful of scenes as one of the crooked federal agents hunting down Rollie. Look out for Angela Bassett (Strange Days) in her feature film acting debut as a television reporter.
Kino Lorber presents F/X in a solid 1080p transfer that was sourced from MGM’s HD master and is framed in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Colors are warm and vibrant, nighttime scenes feature visible action and a lack of murkiness, and the details are crisp and smooth without looking like the victim of excessive noise reduction. Grain is present but kept to an acceptable minimum that is consistent throughout the majority of the running time. Some minor damage to the print remains, but it’s likely you won’t even notice. The lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 does its job quite well with audible dialogue and a terrific presentation of the Conti score, though the lack of a 5.1 option seems odd in light of the fact that F/X was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo. Ambient effects come through without being distorted or swallowed up by the rest of the sound mix. English subtitles have also been included.
The only new extra is a retrospective interview with director Mandel (14 minutes) that offers a brief but informative overview of the production of F/X and its longevity outside of the theater. Kino has also included a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette (14 minutes) created as a promotional tool around the time of the film’s release that includes some cast and crew soundbites and plenty of B-roll footage. Trailers for F/X and its 1991 sequel F/X 2: The Deadly Art of Illusion (also coming soon to Blu-ray from Kino) round out this meager supplements package.
F/X is first-rate suspense entertainment armed with a witty script and a cast of talented character actors more than up to the task of making the story’s absurdities seem plausible. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray presentation looks excellent and comes equipped with a few choice bonus features bound to be of great interest to the film’s fan base. Even if you’ve never seen F/X before, this disc is worth checking out.