DirectorRobert Mandel, Richard Franklin
Release Date(s)1986, 1991 (February 1, 2022)
Studio(s)Orion Pictures/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: C
- Overall Grade: B
For a brief, shining moment in the Eighties, F/X was a thing. The first film seemed to come out of nowhere in 1986—something that was true of far too many projects distributed by Orion Pictures—with a clever concept that felt fresh compared to most Eighties action fare. It became a minor sleeper success during its theatrical release, but it really achieved cult status when it landed on VHS. Unfortunately, it took a bit too long to get a sequel off the ground, and by the time that F/X 2 reached the screens in 1991, interest had waned, and the potential film franchise sputtered to a halt (though it was revived in 1996 as a short-lived TV series). Yet the concept still shines brightly, even if the execution in both films doesn’t always make the best use of it. If any Eighties project would seem ripe for remaking, it’s F/X, but so far, all efforts to do so have failed. Regardless, the original film still has a cherished place in the hearts of those who discovered it back in the day, and they’ve kept its memory alive in the decades since.
F/X tells the story of Rollie Tyler (Bryan Brown), a movie special effects expert who is hired by two people from the Justice Department (Mason Adams and Cliff De Young) to fake a very public death for mob informant Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach). Everything seems to go according to plan, until things go very wrong in the aftermath, and Rollie ends up on the run from the Justice Department. Rollie has to use all of the tools in his arsenal to stay alive while he tries to figure out who double-crossed him and why, while maverick NYPD homicide detective Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy) is right on his tail.
In some ways, F/X is a fascinating example of a film that works despite itself. The script by Robert T. Megginson, Gregory Fleeman, and an uncredited Alan Ormsby is filled with plot holes, inaccuracies, and lapses of logic. Like another famous illusion vs. reality film, The Stunt Man, F/X cheats constantly—not just in terms of how effects work is actually done, but also with the entire filmmaking process. In the case of The Stunt Man, that’s at least partly justifiable, because the film is seen from the point of view of the shell-shocked main character. He already has a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality, so he can’t follow what’s actually happening on set. In F/X, however, Rollie is an effects pro who simply wouldn’t do things the way that they’re presented in the film. (Nor would his tool kit be filled with the kinds of gadgets that he uses here, but that’s another story.)
Despite all of those issues, F/X remains an entertainingly wild ride. Full credit for that needs to go to director Robert Mandel and editor Terry Rawlings, both of whom keep things moving briskly enough to paper over some of those narrative holes. It also doesn’t hurt that the film is so well cast. Bryan Brown was an unexpected choice for Rollie, but his offbeat charm works, and Brian Dennehy could play characters like Leo in his sleep. That’s not a criticism; the great character actors are great precisely because they know what works best for them. F/X also has a pretty potent collection of memorable performers in supporting roles, including Diane Venora, Joe Grifasi, Trey Wilson, and Tom Noonan.
To be fair, F/X needs to be considered in context. When it was released in 1986, general audiences had little idea how films were actually made, and even less of a clue how special effects were shot. That made it a bit easier for the filmmakers to run with their story without worrying about presenting the details accurately. No one in the audience could go home from the theatre and look things up on the internet to see how they were really done. So the best way to watch F/X today is to try to just go with the flow and not sweat the small stuff—it’s still a fun bit of escapism.
Cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek shot F/X on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This master that Kino Lorber first used for the 2015 solo Blu-ray release of F/X wasn’t even fresh back then, but it still has its strengths. There’s light damage throughout, primarily in the form of speckling—most noticeably during the opening titles, while they slowly fade in from black. Some DNR has been applied, as the grain is fairly subdued and doesn’t quite look natural, especially when freeze-framed, but it’s not distracting when in motion. The level of detail is still adequate, with solid contrast and black levels. The color timing is a bit muted with only occasional bursts of more saturated colors such as the lettering on Rollie’s van, but that seems accurate to Ondricek’s intended look. F/X could certainly use a new scan, but there’s still enough life left in the old one.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. F/X was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, which means that it was a four-channel mix matrixed into two, but aside from the stereo spread provided by Bill Conti’s score, the bulk of the mix is focused on the center channel. Most of the sound effects are effectively mono. It springs to life occasionally, but inconsistently. For example, the opening scene takes place in the rain and includes the sounds of gunfire, but most of that is steered to the center. The later assassination scene also takes place in the rain, accompanied by gunfire, and in that case the effects are spread across the front, with ambience sent to the surrounds. It’s possible that the decision to use Dolby Stereo was made late during the production, after a mono mix had already been started, and there wasn’t enough time to remix everything. It sounds fine for what it is, but it still seems like a missed opportunity.
F/X (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO) B/B/B-
F/X 2 picks up a few years after the conclusion of F/X, with Rollie and Leo having gone their separate ways. Rollie has understandably retired from the effects business, but the ex-husband of his girlfriend Kim (Rachel Ticotin) is an NYPD cop who asks for Rollie’s help to stage a trap for a killer who is targeting a model. Naturally, when things go wrong, Rollie ends up on the run once again, this time enlisting the help of Leo, who has retired from the force and has been working as a private investigator. The duo ends up uncovering an international conspiracy that will put both of their lives in jeopardy, and only Rollie’s skills can save them.
Like the previous film, F/X 2 has an abundance of plot holes and lapses in logic, but in this case, familiarity makes them more difficult to dismiss. F/X had the advantage of a seemingly novel concept, but since F/X 2 borrows the same essential setup, it’s harder to ignore how implausible it is this time around. As someone once said, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice… won’t get fooled again. The screenplay by Bill Condon does have some flashes of wit to it, but he was constrained by the requirement of sticking to the established formula. He also made the questionable decision to repeat the first film’s problematic trope of treating a female supporting character as a sacrificial lamb, in this case even more arbitrarily.
F/X director Robert Mandel didn’t return, so Australian director Richard Franklin stepped in for the sequel. (Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the first time he had done so years after a famous original film, as he had also directed the underrated Psycho 2.) The production doesn’t appear to have been a happy one—second unit director Vic Armstrong claimed in his book The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman that he took over from Franklin for the last few weeks of production. Yet F/X 2 holds together reasonably well, despite the lack of narrative inspiration, and any behind-the-scenes issues that may have occurred. It’s just better to consider it on its own merits, rather than worrying about comparing it to the original.
Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper shot F/X 2 on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras and lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. The master for this film also dates back to at least 2015, and while it shares most of the same characteristics as the one for F/X, it’s slightly improved across the board. The light damage that’s visible may be similar, but detail is a little better, grain is a bit more natural, contrast is just a touch stronger, and it seems just a hair sharper overall. None of these differences are dramatic, but they’re noticeable. The colors are less muted this time around, though that’s the way Kemper shot the film. Again, a fresh scan could generate some improvements, but there’s nothing seriously wrong with the old one.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. F/X 2 was also released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, and this time it’s a full-fledged surround mix from start to finish. It’s still a relatively tame one during the film’s quieter moments, but everything springs to life during the action scenes, with more directionalized sound effects and a sense of envelopment. The bass is a little deeper than in F/X, which is immediately evident during the opening credits with Lalo Schifrin’s lively score—not surprisingly, a characteristically funky bass guitar provides much of the rhythm that drives the music.
F/X 2 (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO) C/B+/B+
Kino Lorber’s double feature Blu-ray of F/X and F/X 2 is a repackage of their earlier single disc versions—meaning that it’s the same two discs, combined into one set. Both discs are contained in a single amaray case, with a slipcover that duplicates the artwork on the insert. The following extras are included:
DISC ONE: F/X
- Interview with Director Robert Mandel (HD – 14:02)
- The Making of FX (SD – 14:10)
- F/X Trailer (Upscaled HD – 2:35)
- F/X 2 Trailer (HD – 1:51)
In the Interview with Director Robert Mandel, he talks about how his first film Independence Day got him the job on F/X. He says that it was conceived as a B action movie, and while he had little experience with practical effects work, the concept of reality vs. illusion fascinated him. He gives a lot of credit to Alan Ormsby for adding humor to the script, as well as giving Rollie more motivation for why he gets involved with the fake assassination. Mandel also credits Ondricek for coordinating with effects expert John Stears to help them shoot the low-budget film efficiently. The Making of FX is an above-average vintage EPK featurette that was produced to promote the film. Directed by Paul Sammon, it includes on-set interviews with Mandel, Bryan Brown, John Stears, and Jerry Orbach. While a retrospective documentary would have been nice, this featurette is still satisfying because of the large quantity of behind-the-scenes footage.
DISC TWO: F/X 2
- Making-of Featurette (SD – 6:31)
- F/X Trailer (Upscaled HD – 2:35)
- F/X 2 Trailer (HD – 1:51)
The Making-of Featurette is far more perfunctory than the one for the first film, with very brief interview footage including Brown, Bryan Dennehy, Richard Franklin, and effects expert Eric Allard. It’s too short to give any useful information. The two trailers are duplicates, but since these discs were originally separate releases, the duplication isn’t intentional.
If you already own Kino’s separate single disc releases of F/X and F/X 2 (which are being withdrawn from release anyway), there’s no reason to pick up this double feature set. If not, then it’s a cost-effective way to add both films to your collection. (Though for the handful of lunatics out there like me who organize their libraries by director, it’s the kind of set that causes OCD meltdowns.) Decades down the road, they’re still good clean fun—just don’t ruin that by putting too much thought into them.
- Stephen Bjork