1986 in Film – F/X Murder By Illusion

Release Date: February 7th
Box Office: $20,395,193

It’s always nice to see a little film do well, you know? One that hasn’t got millions of millions of dollars behind it and massive studio resources and marketing and all that. Just a well made decent film managing to find an audience, despite a slightly dodgy title.

F/X Murder by Illusion (1986) was initially intended to be a made for TV movie before it was picked up by producer Jack Wiener who thought that the film would be best released theatrically. He brought in director Robert Mandel, who at the time was more known for his off-Broadway work. The idea was to have someone in charge of the film who could bring a realistic touch to the main character, which seems to fly in the face of the action heavy trend of the time. Not to say that F/X would ignore this, Mandel wanted to work on a film that would stop him being perceived as an arty director.

The film centres around Rollie Tyler, played with full Australian accent by Bryan Brown. He is a special effects artist, veteran of innumerable low budget films. He is approached by the Justice Department who want to stage the murder of a mob informant, Jerry Orbach as Nicholas DeFranco, so they can send him safely into hiding. Rollie accepts the job but is quickly framed for the murder and has to go on the run. Meanwhile, homicide Detective Leo McCarthy, a moustachioed Brian Dennehy last seen rescuing aliens from swimming pools, starts sniffing around the murder and others that follow in Rollie’s wake. Before you know it we have car chases and hidden mob money and all sorts.

It’s a decent Hictchcockian idea, that of the innocent man swept up into events beyond his control. Bryan Brown keeps Rollie from becoming too competent as the film progresses, which is a problem in these kind of action films. The last thing you want is your confused hero suddenly turning into a killing machine, which is fine if he’s a Vietnam vet but not so much if he spends all day on a film set.

F/X just about stays on the right side of Rollie using his smarts to win, especially in the car chase where he is driving a van full of his special effect tricks. That being said, we probably could have done without the giant 80s neon graffiti “F/X” on the side of the truck.

The main problem with the film is that the two leads are kept apart for the entire film; Dennehy seemingly spends most of the film sat in an NYPD computer lab as one of the technicians pretty much solves the case. It’s only at the epilogue of the film that they meet and feels like we’re missing out.

Of course, this partnership would be the centre of the inevitable sequel; the film scored at the box office nearly doubling it’s budget. It reviewed well, the critics enjoying the fairly standard run of the mill genre plot being given more depth by well drawn characters and above average production design. Rollie’s effects were produced by John Stears who had worked on the first eight Bond films and also Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) which gave then a legitimacy the film needed.

That the sequel wouldn’t turn up for a good 5 years is perplexing. Whilst the stars would remain the director wouldn’t, which ended up with a much more plodding and generic film. It made about the same as the first but with a higher production budget so that was that for the film series. A short lived TV series followed in 1996, the concept returning to it’s roots as Rollie and Leo, now played by different actors, solve crimes together.

F/X is then a blip: for the director it would be his biggest theatrical success before he moved into TV directing, which included the pilot of The X-Files; Bryan Brown would continue in Hollywood but be more known for his supporting work, his next major role would be in Cocktail (1988); Brian Dennehy would continue being Brian Dennehy in all his glory.

Whilst it’s a blip it’s certainly an enjoyable one, one that just about exceeds it’s b-movie origins. It’s worth watching again if only for the list of films that Rollie worked on; who wouldn’t want to see The Mannequin Depression? Or Rock a Die Baby?

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