Thursday, August 7, 2014

Summer of Films: F/X (1986)

Last week, I mentioned that Body Double was one of a group of films from the 1980’s that weren’t famous or influential, but which were nevertheless quite good and which found long lives with audiences. F/X is another of those films. F/X had no bankable star, no big name director, did not come from a book, and had a budget of only $10 million. It doubled its money, but can hardly be called a hit. Yet, it spawned a belated sequel and a television series, and it continues to find an audience today.
Roland “Rollie” Tyler (Bryan Brown) is the best special effects man in the movie business. He’s so good that the Department of Justice asks him to help them. They are holding a mobster named Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach), who is turning state’s evidence against the mob. To protect him, they want to stage a fake assassination so everyone thinks he’s dead. For that, they need Rollie’s help.
Rollie agrees to help, but things go wrong when he finds himself double-crossed by corrupt DOJ agent Martin Lipton (Cliff De Young), who causes Rollie to really kill DeFranco... or does he? Rollie flees and must now figure out what really happened and expose the truth as he is hunted by the corrupt agent. Meanwhile NYC police detective Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy) doesn’t believe DeFranco is dead and he begins investigating the Department of Justice agents involved.
What Made This Film Work
Directed by theater director Robert Mandel and starring barely-known Aussie Bryan Brown (Breaker Morant), F/X began life as a proposed low-budget television movie, but was upped to a feature film by producer Dodi Fayed, of Princess Di fame. Fayed made the decision to hire Mandel to direct because he was looking for someone other than an action director because he wanted a film in which the audience cared about the characters...

...he wanted a film in which the audience cared about the characters... Imagine that!

That decision is what made F/X what it is, which is a film you like because the characters interest you and you want to see what happens to them. Indeed, these are very richly drawn characters with lots of relatable traits. What’s more, the film is very smart in how it imparts these character traits in that it never once stops the plot to share them with you.
For example, the film spends considerable effort letting you get to know Rollie. You learn what motivates him and how his own pride can be used to manipulate him. You learn how amazingly talented he is and how good he is at thinking on his feet. You see his passion for special effects, and you learn both how he could be taken in so easily and how he could be such a formidable opponent when things turn. You meet the love of his life. And so on. In fact, the first fifteen or twenty minutes are really spent telling you everything you need to know about Rollie to really like and respect him, and to earn the credibility to achieve everything he does.

BUT... none of this is done in the usual action-film manner. There are no flashbacks. There are no ten minute weepy asides. There is no five minute saccharine sweet snapshot of the lead character’s life which finishes as the kids hug him and his wife kisses him goodbye for the day. Instead, you watch the plot unfold, and as you watch the plot, you learn all these things about Rollie from watching his actions, his responses, and how others respond to him. Essentially, you are awash in characterization, but you don’t even realize it.
You get to know Detective McCarthy the same way. McCarthy also presents values we truly embrace: tenacity, honor, a sense of duty, and a disdain for politics. And he comes across as someone you want to see succeed. To pull us in even more, as with Rollie, the film then puts various obstacles in McCarthy’s path to give us a need to cheer him on as he tries to find Rollie and solve the mystery. In fact, what’s really interesting here is that McCarthy and Rollie don’t even meet until the end of the film. No blockbuster could have resisted a series of chase and fight scenes between the two, but this film does because that would be fake drama.
In addition to the two main characters, the supporting characters too are given substantive roles that are strongly written even when they are very minor characters. There are no clichés, no cardboard, and no plot convenience characters, even among the guys who only show up for a minute or two. Consider, for example, McCarthy’s contact in the police records department, Marisa. She’s barely in the film, yet we know that she has strong feelings for McCarthy which she realizes will never become reality. We see that she is bright, dedicated, and not above going around the system for a good cause. You have McCarthy’s boss, who we see can no longer defend McCarthy, but still defends him personally. You have loyal secretaries with clever lines, dedicated police, not so dedicated police, a bad guy you really dislike and a bad guy you almost feel sorry for... neither of whom is a maniacal puppy kicker – they earn their bad guy status through their deeds. Each of these characters has as much, if not more, characterization built into them than the main characters in most blockbusters today. And as with Rollie, this characterization is presented in their words and deeds and interactions, i.e. they never stop the plot to force feed you character moments.
The end result is this. You have two leads showing you the film from two different perspectives. You like both and you want to get to know them and you want to see them both succeed. They are both very interesting. They are also surrounded by a world of characters that are likewise interesting in their own right. The writing is solid. The dialog is smart and feels realistic. The characters are believable. The film doesn’t make huge logical jumps. It doesn’t rely on chance or coincidence to work. No character does things they don’t seem trained to do. Likewise, the action scenes are really good. They tend to be short and believable. There are no drawn out fight scenes. The film isn’t unnaturally butcherous, but it’s also not unnaturally pacifistic. Rollie will kill because he needs to. He doesn’t whine about it and he doesn’t gloat about it or glory in it. He does what a desperate, but determined man would do. This lends a real sense of reality to a film.

Ultimately, this all makes for solid, enjoyable film with a high degree of re-watchability.



Anonymous said...

I've never seen F/X but I've always meant to. Thanks for jogging my memory. I promise I'm going to check it out. A couple seasons ago it got a mention on Psyche.
Shawn "What did we learn from F/X ?
Gus "That Brian Brown can't carry a movie."
Shawn "What about Full Body Massage?"
Gus "We both know why we watched that." :)

Jason said...

I also haven’t seen this movie but I’ve heard of it. It’s one of those titles that, sometime, somewhere, you’ll hear about at least once. Your review sounds a lot like what other people have said about it: an enjoyable action picture with good characters and a neat premise.

And, perhaps to no surprise, this is another title that gets talked up for a remake.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, I think you'll like it. And Brown does a lot better than Psyche would suggest, though yes, he doesn't have the star power to carry most movies on his own.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I constantly hear talk about a remake. I think the premise is irresistible to Hollywood.

It's not Back to the Future or Raiders of the Lost Arc, but this is a good film and well worth your time. That's why it's found an audience and it appears on television regularly.

Backthrow said...

I saw F/X in the theater in '86, loved it then, watched it on cable and DVD several times since, and it holds up well.

I'd say the only thing that strains a little bit of credibility --and this is minor, as these things go-- is that the film asks us to believe that Brown is a master at a wide variety of effects techniques; traditional theatrical makeup, animatronics, all manner of practical/physical effects work (explosive charges, mirrors, etc), stuntwork, etc.

Not only that he can do this on the fly, while the villains and police are after him, but that he does it all, normally, on the set of major film projects, with maybe one assistant. If that were true, end credit rolls would be significantly shorter, lol.

And they go a little overboard with the pun movie titles. From the references, it seems like every film Rollin has ever worked on is a joke title, like "I Dismember Mama".

But it's a fun movie, so, you roll with these.

Mason Adams is good here, also, as the villainous Smuckers Jelly spokesman.

Very much recommended for those who've missed it. If you like stories about an outnumbered-and-presumably-doomed character who is vastly underestimated by his opponents (DIEHARD, anyone?), this is a must.

I seem to remember the sequel being not nearly as good.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, Die Hard is a good comparison in that regard. Rollie is very much an everyman, except for his special effects skills. And it's those skills the bad guys underestimate.

In terms of credibility, there are a few moments that stretch things a bit, but overall the movie is sufficiently enjoyable that you gloss over those moments with little difficulty. Agreed on the puns.

I think Mason Adams is excellent. He plays a very convincing DOJ chief and then a very convincing bad guy, all without ever seeming maniacal or truly evil... just corrupt.

Yeah, the sequel wasn't nearly as good. It's watchable, but highly flawed and it lacks most of the charm and fun of this film.

KRS said...

Nice pick, Andrew. This is a great film. I am particularly fond of the everyman beats the masters of all evil schtick, when it is done this well. The movie relies on a number of finely executed misdirections that somewhat diminishes the experience in watching it again, but I've watched it more than once and enjoyed it.

The movie came of the heels of the wave of Australian films that had been hitting the US for the previous years: Mad Max (1979), Breaker Morant, (1980), Phar Lap ('81), Gallipoli ('81), Year of Living Dangerously ('82), Man from Snowy River ('82) and the first Crocodile Dundee ('85). We thought the Australian film industry was rising to rival Hollywood, then it suddenly seemed to peter out. One of the very cool things about their products was that they went into inspirational story telling as Hollywood descended into cynical tropes, so the Aussies felt fresh. Even in examples such as Breaker Morant and Gallipoli, you can find messages that affirm the nobility of man, despite the fates of the protagonists.

The 80's were a great decade for films of all stripes and you often didn't know what to expect when you entered a theater. I guess that experience is gone for good.

Kinda sorry that Bryan Brown isn't more prevalent in the cinema.

PikeBishop said...

Speaking of Australian Cinema, had anyone ever seen the almost forgotten Paul Hogan project "Almost an Angel?" I never was interested in any of those "touched by" or "Highway to Heaven" stories, but I just ended up watching this one night and wow, it took some turns I didn't expect and even has an amazing, "never saw that coming" plot development (notice I avoided the dance associated with Chubby Checker word) towards the end.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, There was definitely an Australian wave at the time, and Brown benefited from it. Though, sadly, he never did catch on as a major star. He also did Cocktail around this time.

In terms of re-watchability, there are definitely some twists that are better the first time. But overall, I think the story is very re-watchable.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I haven't seen it.

Dave Olson said...

It's odd, F/X is a much better film than its sequel, but I seem to have seen F/X2 on cable a LOT more than the original. It says plenty about the programming directors of America's cable channels.

F/X doesn't need a remake any more than it needed a sequel. For the love of Pete, Hollywood, think outside the box and try to come up with a high-concept movie that's at least somewhat original.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent review, Andrew!
I concur, it is a solidly good film, with great characterization. I like how it avoids all the cliches and lazy writing so inherent in most action films. Goes to show that the best action films are usually the smartest as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ben! This actually causes me to think that if you're going to make an action film, you should at least have someone important on staff who isn't an action guy so that they can force the kinds of things actions films normally neglect, i.e. characterization.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, Sadly, Hollywood is all about risk aversion and remaking a film that has found an audience is safer than doing something new.

F/X is definitely a much better film than its sequel. As to why they would show the sequel just as much (or more), I suspect that has to do with cost. Apparently that drives most programming decisions, at least on the cable networks.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

Love F/X. Andrew have you seen Blow Out? Another overlooked 80s film with John Travolta (DePalma was on a roll save for the execrable Casualties of War)

Stakeout with Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez -- also great

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, I have seen that and enjoyed it. I also really enjoyed Stakeout. That was a good time for films!

PikeBishop said...

Also in 86-87, "Stand by Me," Manhunter (the original appearance of Hanibal Lecter, and Brian Cox blows Sir Anthony away), "Now Way Out" and DiPalma's masterpiece "the Untouchables." Good times indeed.

Anonymous said...

Another one I missed... and another one I've been told I should see by several parties!

I'll just need to "find" it one day. ;-)

(And yes, uh, Bryan Brown won the lottery with his role in Full Body Massage.)

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brown hit the lottery twice. He's been married to Rachel Ward since 1983.
It just ain't right.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Those were excellent films as well. The 1980s were a good time for films, especially the second tier films that weren't as famous at the time.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You really should see this one. Your 1980's film knowledge isn't complete without it.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, LOL!

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Turns out this was on HBO On Demand this whole time! I just finished it. I liked it, though I agree with a couple of comments that the film strains credulity a few times (Rollie knowing every kind of effect and he's able to do it all on the fly by himself)... plus there were more than a few "on the nose" lines: "N/A?" "Yeah, not applicable." No shit! :-)

And the female assistant was a little too much of a ditz for my liking. But that's more acting than the writing. Brown and Dennehy are great, though.

What's funny is, this movie seems to have a loyal cult audience, but if it had starred Robert Redford and had been made 10 years earlier, it'd be considered a modern classic like Three Days of the Condor (which was a vibe I got from this movie).

They could remake this movie today... they could call it CGI and would involve doctoring footage of some kind... EXCEPT: a.) it wouldn't be as exciting, and b.) all of this technology is much more accessible to regular people now, so there wouldn't be any novelty to it.

Anonymous said...

Turns out the second film was on HBO On Demand, too!

It was okay... I'm wondering if it would be thought of more fondly if the first film didn't exist. It was still neat to see all of Rollie's tricks but they made him too much like MacGyver... able to get out of any jam with just a lighter and hairspray, that sort of thing. It features one of my favorite character actors, Philip Bosco, but I think he was wasted in this movie. And the technology... you'd never have a line like, "Do you know how to use a modem?" in a movie today!

The biggest disappointment... where was Brian Dennehy's mustache? :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Sccott, It does have a Three Days of the Condor vibe, except it also feels very much like a 1980s film rather than a political 1970s film.

CGI would suck as a film!

On the second film, I enjoy it, but I think it's very flawed. Even the production values are a notch below. The grocery store scene, for example, is fun but also feels totally staged to the point of being comedic.

I also don't like that they killed Denehey's girlfriend. That seemed like too much for the lighthearted vibe of these films.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Yeah, I forgot to mention that. Her death wasn't needed.

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