Whatever you see with your eyes can sometimes elude you from what is actually happening. Special effects are often a tool used in movies, television and even during special engagements at amusement parks. They are designed to enhance the storytelling of what the audience is viewing. Prior to the invention of the computer, which in turn, provided the computer-generated effects (or CGI) of future productions, movies generally relied on practical effects to surprise the audience or leave us wanting more. It required more work behind the scenes, but in the end, it was worth it and surely made an impact.
F/X is a movie that introduces the audience into the world of make believe. A man named Rollie (Bryan Brown) is an expert on special effects, especially considering his experience with working on low budget horror films that keep audiences coming to the theater. Rollie is a man who can make the impossible believable and he’s the best in the business. So, how is a movie like F/X such a treat to watch after thirty-five years? What makes the film so much fun? And, what is better; practical effects or special effects?
The movie takes place in New York City, and Rollie (Bryan Brown) is working hard on a new movie but this time it’s not a horror film. It’s a mob movie and this draws the interest of the Justice Department. Rollie is later approached by a special agent of the Justice Department named Lipton (Cliff De Young) who wants to hire him for a daring assignment. A mob informant named DeFranco (Jerry Orbach) is getting ready to testify in court and there is information that a hit has been put out on DeFranco. The Feds come up with a plan to stage an assassination in a public place to make it appear as real as possible. This will be an attempt to make the mob think that DeFranco is really dead easing pressure off the Justice Department.
Rollie thinks the job is rather interesting, but this is to be done within just a matter of days. The pressure is on and to make matters worse, Rollie has never done something of this caliber, especially in public view. He’s used to working on movie sets, where the environments are controlled and everybody knows what’s going on. Nevertheless, he comes up with a plan. A six-shooter revolver will be used in the “shooting” while DeFranco will be wearing a receiver that will transmit the shots, making it appear real.
We get to see how this process unfolds, from the beginning of the setup to the final moment when the killing actually occurs. When the stunt is finally on schedule to take place, Rollie is suddenly thrown a curve ball. He’s to portray the shooter. He knows the gear, what everything will look like and how it’s supposed to unfold. Rollie is quite nervous as you can imagine, but rest assured, the restaurant where the assassination is going to take place is going to have nothing but cops in the joint. They will know who he is and there will be no surprises.
I’m not going to reveal much more but we learn that Rollie becomes double-crossed by the Justice Department and it seems that the prop gun could’ve been tampered with. This could mean that DeFranco is really dead! With Rollie being identified as the shooter, he’s now the number one most wanted man in the city. This brings us to meet Detective Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy) who is investigating the apparent death of DeFranco.
McCarthy is a rough, tough cop who doesn’t like to take any crap. Sure, he may bend the rules in order to secure an arrest or suggest a way to circumvent the law in order to achieve justice. He may also be a thorn in the side of his fellow officers, but Leo doesn’t care. He’s had some history with DeFranco and even upon hearing of his death, the Justice Department is oddly enough, not exactly forthcoming nor cooperative when McCarthy investigates.
Oh, right, right. Sorry. The effects in this movie. Yes, when Rollie learns of the actual truth of what it going on he uses his tools and particular set of skills in order to clear his name. What happens next is a series of wonderfully choreographed sequences that appear to be action filled, but are instead well-thought-out traps in order to fool the bad guys. Rollie, has many skills, and working in the make believe has granted him a unique way of thinking when threats against his life are knocking at the front door!
The screenplay was written by two novice writers; Gregory Fleeman and Robert T. Megginson and their script caught the attention of Jack Wiener and co-producer Dodi Fayed. Fayed went on to hire Robert Mandel to serve as the director of the movie since he was familiar with his work as an Off-Broadway director. They decided they wanted a different kind of director, one who wasn’t familiar with action so that the characters would be seen as more believable thus making the action seem appropriate.
The special effects of the movie were handled by the legendary John Stears, best known for his contributions to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for which he shared the Academy Award for Best Special Effects. F/X itself had a budget of $10 million and went on to double that in the box office in the United States. Interestingly, the executives at Orion Pictures, who distributed the film, felt that the film could’ve performed better because most audiences were often confused at the title of the movie. Perhaps, if they stuck with the film’s ending song, Just an Illusion by Imagination, the film may have performed even better.
F/X was a movie that was perfectly cast, well-written and exciting. A sequel was made and released in 1991 but didn’t see the same success as its predecessor. While the sequel was entertaining to a fault, personally, it’s a bit too goofy to take seriously. It’s a fun movie to watch but when compared to the original, it seems that part two tried almost too hard to top itself.
There was even a tv spinoff that debut in 1996 and ran for two years. I have yet to actually watch a single episode but even just reading about it proves that F/X was better suited for a one-time event. That isn’t to say that it could’ve expanded into something more, but I think most audiences can agree that when it comes to a series, at some point it has to come to an end.
One Last Thought
So, what it better? Special effects or practical effects? There is no easy answer and admittingly special effects are cheaper and take less time, but there is something just magical about practical effects. Take any horror movie, sci-fi epic or even some simple action movies and watch the behind-the-scenes. Seeing how the production crew was able to create something from scratch is far more interesting that seeing it designed on a computer. That is just my opinion. I get tired of watching movies where you can tell that something was created on a computer.
One notorious example is seeing the Star Wars trilogy that was re-released in the late 1990s and there were added scenes that made an impact on the audience. They weren’t as clean or crisp as they were even in the late 1970s. Plus, anyone remember the addition of Jabba the Hutt when he spoke to Han Solo in the 1997 re-release of Return of the Jedi? It did look at bit obvious wouldn’t you say?
Whether you like special effects of practical effects, seeing them on display can be an amazing experience. With many movies today relying of special effects these days, it’s nice to venture back to a time when movies were made a little differently. F/X is one of those movies, and if you love a good story that is smart and witty as the same time, then I recommend this true gem from 1986!