Sunday, February 9, 2014

F/X (1986)

Director: Robert Mandel                                  Writers: Robert Megginson & Gregory Fleeman
Film Score: Bill Conti                                     Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Starring: Brian Brown, Brian Dennehy, Jerry Orbach and Cliff De Young

Australian actor Brian Brown had a brief but popular career in the late eighties and early nineties, but little to speak of after that. F/X was his first big film after breaking out in the miniseries The Thorn Birds and by the time he did Cocktail with Tom Cruise he was nearly at the end of his run as a superstar. The sequel to the film, F/X 2 was unable to capture the magic of the first film and from then on he has been relegated to small, supporting roles and television work. Here he plays a special effects artist working in New York City who is called in by some people in the Justice Department’s witness relocation program to stage the death of a mob informant. Brown is naturally suspicious why they would want an outsider to do a job like this, but they play to his vanity and suggest that only someone with his skills can do the job right, and in true artistic fashion he buys in. The thirty thousand dollars he’s offered doesn’t hurt, either.

The mob informant is none other than the late, great Jerry Orbach who was so effective as the cynical detective Lennie Briscoe in the original Law and Order series that he hung around the show for twelve seasons. Mason Adams, just coming out of his success in the Lou Grant TV series, is the head of the witness protection program and his right hand man is the intense Cliff De Young. What they want to do, to ensure that no one comes after Orbach after he testifies, is to stage a public assassination using Brown’s special effects work. Everyone will think Orbach is dead and the mob will forget about him. Brown rigs the setup but De Young acts like a nervous teenager going on his first date, so Adams takes Brown aside and begs him to do the shooting, again, appealing to his vanity. So Brown goes ahead with the phony hit and when he’s picked up afterward De Young points a real gun in his face and says that they can’t have any loose ends. Miraculously, he gets away and turns the second half of the film from being the hunted to doing the hunting himself.

While all of this is going on Brian Dennehy, the cop who brought in Orbach, is at odds with his lieutenant for being taken off the case and having it reassigned to Trey Wilson for political reasons. When Orback is “killed” he naturally wants back on the case, and he and his partner, Joe Grifasi, start hunting down clues as to why the hit was allowed to happen. The morning after the hit Brown wakes up in bed with his actress girlfriend, Diane Venora, and the normalcy makes him think the whole thing might have been a bad dream. But he is sadly mistaken when suddenly he finds himself on the run for his life again. He’s assisted in his escape by his special effects partner Martha Gehman and once he’s safe, begins planning his revenge on Adams and the rest.

Despite all the star power, the film was originally planned as a TV movie, but producer Jack Wiener liked the script so much that he wanted to bump it up to a feature film. Then he made some very specific choices that accounts for the film’s success. First he hired relatively unknown director Robert Mandel because he wanted to de-emphasize the action elements and focus more on the realism of the special effects and the characters. Then he hired veteran special effects man John Stears who had worked on numerous James Bond films. It’s a curious film. It feels like a low-budget production, and yet is packed with stars. Some of the acting, Martha Gehman in particular, is pretty bad, but it’s the story that really carries the film. Critics liked it and audiences loved it, though the odd two-letter title was not as effective at filling seats as a more traditional title might have been. Nevertheless, F/X is a unique film that continues to deliver a lot of entertainment.

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