I was sure I saw this one before on HBO, but when I caught it again this month on Amazon Prime Video I had the feeling I had missed some of it. Anyhow, it’s F/X from 1986, and it had a good run at the time, spawning a franchise. It followed a plot formula, familiar even back then. Here’s an outline.
It’s a dark and stormy night in Manhattan when a car pulls up to a swanky uptown restaurant. A man exits the car and comes in out of the rain. He doesn’t have a reservation. He pulls a machine gun and starts shooting up the place. It’s a mad house.
Bullets are flying, people are cut down at their tables, a bank of large fish tanks dissolves into a shower of glass, and a flood of water and fish wash across the scene. At the very last a blond floozy recoils from the mayhem and begs for her life. She is machine gunned and dies spectacularly.
Because, that’s what it’s all about. It’s a movie set, actually in Manhattan, and the brilliant special effects (hence the title) work of cinema artist Roland “Rollie” Tyler (Bryan Brown). It’s a successful shoot, and it’s a wrap. A crew begins scooping up fish and siphoning off water. “Killed” patrons get up off the floor and head to get out of their costumes and makeup. The blond floozy is actually Roland’s best girl Ellen (Diane Venora).
But in comes a “producer” who wants to hire Roland. He’s Martin Lipton (Cliff De Young).
It turns out Lipton is not really a producer. He’s with the United States Justice Department, and he wants Roland to stage a fake assassination on a mob boss, Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach). The scheme is being managed by a Col. Edward Mason (Mason Adams), who ultimately convinces Roland to work the scam.
So DeFranco is rigged with special gear and brought to a fancy Manhattan restaurant, almost a replay of the opening scene. Roland plays the part of the hit man, and he empties his weapon into the gangster.
Only, it’s not the gangster. It’s a person hired under false pretenses to impersonate DeFranco, and Lipton has substituted the blank cartridges in the pistol with live ammunition.
Roland makes his exit and gets in the waiting car with Lipton, who immediately pulls a pistol and attempts to shoot Roland. Roland turns the tables, the driver is killed, and Roland escapes into the rain. Remember, once again it’s a dark and stormy night in Manhattan.
From a phone booth (this was 1986) Roland calls Mason to tell him what just happened. You guessed it. Mason is in on it. He orders Roland to stay put. A police car will come to get him.
But somebody else wants to use the phone, and Roland watches from a doorway, out of the rain, as a police car rolls up, and two “cops” riddle the unfortunate in the phone booth.
Now Roland realizes the shit is deeper than imagined, and he takes it on the lam, spending the night with Ellen in her place.
But come the morning, when Ellen goes to open the blinds, a sniper’s bullet comes through the glass and kills her. Her second death in the movie.
Roland waits, and the sniper shows up. Roland kills the sniper and launches a scheme to turn the tables on the crooked federal agents. He has his own arsenal at his disposal—his bag of movie tricks. Thus develops the movie’s (and subsequent offshoots) theme. Special effects to defeat bad guys.
Enter two honest cops, Lt. Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy) and his partner (not readily identified). They figure out something is fishy about the whole business, and as they barge close to the truth McCarthy is relieved of duty. Of course he keeps working the case. That’s the formula.
Roland regains his van, which the police had impounded, and he leads the police on a chase through the streets and along sidewalks. More special effects.
Roland makes his way to Mason’s Mansion, protected by a mass of armed guards. He defeats the protection detail one at a time, by tricking one into touching an electrified iron gate and another by tricking a fellow guard into shooting him.
But DeFranco is alive and is about to leave the country with Mason. He has the key to a box in a Swiss bank, from which everybody plans to live a life of leisure. But Roland knows DeFranco wears a pacemaker, and when DeFranco touches a charged glass plate his pacemaker comes to a halt. That leaves only Mason, who attempts to bribe Roland with the key.
But Roland is again a step ahead. He places the Uzi he stole from one of the dead security detail on a table, after removing all the bullets and also after dousing it with crazy glue. When Mason picks up the Uzi and discovers it will not shoot and also that he cannot put it down, Roland shoves him outside where the police are waiting with guns drawn.
Roland fakes his own death and later joins McCarthy in Switzerland. Roland is a master of disguise, and he already has a DeFranco’s face in his bag of tricks. With the key, that’s all he needs to get at the box and the loot.
Closing title scenes are a tour through the Swiss Alps.
Jerry Orbach was already a Broadway legend when he played second fiddle in this movie. He later went to greater popularity as Lennie Briscoe for 12 years in the Law & Order TV series. He first came to my attention decades ago when he was one of the special people who drank Dewar’s Scotch.
A sequel, F/X2: The Deadly Art of Illusion, was released in 1991. A spinoff TV series entitled F/X: The Series was produced from 1996 to 1998.
Even watching this for the first time you’re going to know Roland is being set up. You only need to figure out how they are going to do it. It’s not hard, either, to figure Roland is going to use special effects to defeat the conspiracy. Beyond that, there are gaps in logic.
The crooked feds need to spirit DeFranco out of the country along with his magic bank box key, and they need to make everybody think he’s dead. So they concoct an elaborate scheme and pull a phalanx of others in. What were they thinking? What keeps the coroner from taking fingerprints to verify the identity of the corpse? The conspirators got into trouble when they got all these other players involved.
They need to kill Roland. And they engage a sniper, yet another person, to take a shot into a high-rise apartment. And the hired gun shoots Ellen instead? Then he comes to the apartment and lets himself in, only to be killed by a movie special effects man? If he could let himself in, why didn’t he do that to begin with?
It gets mentioned that maybe Roland should squelch the plot right out of the gate by unloading to the New York Times. The Watergate episode is mentioned. People, if a bunch of crooked government officials are out to track you down and kill you, the quickest way to get them off your back is to notify some reporters. The bad guys are going to be spending all their time dodging questions and trying to get out of the country to have any opportunity to mess with you.
Roland is one slick operator. In fact, he is too slick. He drives up to Mason’s house, never having seen it before, and he is able to disable alarms and lights as though he had the schematics burned into his brain. Remember, this is night time.
Yes, the movie is like Roland’s life, all special effects.