F/X (also known as or subtitled Murder by Illusion) is a 1986 American action-thriller film about Rollie Tyler (Bryan Brown), an expert in the art of special effects (F/X) with a reputation built by his work on many low-budget hack-and-slash films such as I Dismember Mama. The Department of Justice hires him to stage the murder of a gangster about to enter the Witness Protection Program. He agrees, but then things get complicated. Meanwhile, New York City police detective Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy) is investigating the faked murder and cannot understand why the Justice Department is even less helpful than usual.
Roland "Rollie" Tyler (Bryan Brown) is hired by the Justice Department to stage the murder of mob informant Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach). DeFranco is set to testify against his formerMafia bosses and go into witness protection, but the Justice Department is afraid he will be killed before the trial can begin. Tyler rigs a gun with blanks and fixes DeFranco up with radio transmitters and fake blood packs to simulate bullet hits. The Justice Department supervisor on the case, Edward Mason (Mason Adams), specifically asks Tyler to be the "assassin." wearing a disguise. He is paid $30,000 and assured by Mason that he is "100% protected."
DeFranco wears Tyler's rig to an Italian restaurant. The public "assassination" goes flawlessly. However, when Tyler is picked up afterward by the Justice agent in charge, Lipton (Cliff DeYoung), the agent tries to shoot him. In the ensuing struggle for Lipton's gun the driver is killed and the car crashes, allowing Tyler to escape. He gets to a phone booth and contacts Mason, who instructs him to wait for other agents to come and take him to a safe location. Another man needs to use the phone, so Tyler lets him. Then Tyler is horrified when the man is mistakenly killed by the agents and retreats to the safety of his girlfriend Ellen's (Diane Venora) apartment. In the morning, Ellen is shot and killed by a sniper aiming for Tyler. Tyler kills the sniper after an intense fight when he enters the apartment to finish the job.
Manhattan homicide detective Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy) becomes interested in the case because he has been pursuing DeFranco for several years. Aided by a "damn good cop" in the computer section, he discovers that the assassination was faked and that Mason planned it. When he is suspended by his captain for his reckless methods, including threatening his chief rival Murdoch (Trey Wilson) for information, McCarthy cleverly manages to steal his boss's badge and gun.
Using an elaborate phone prank, Tyler brings Lipton out in the open and kidnaps him in his official car. He stuffs Lipton into the trunk and takes him on an unusually rough ride to get Mason's address out of him, believing that DeFranco is hiding there waiting to be transported out of the country. Tyler steals back his impounded van with the help of his assistant and escapes following a furious chase through Lower Manhattan with McCarthy's partner (Joe Grifasi) in pursuit. Under cover of darkness Tyler goes to Mason's mansion where, using his special effects expertise, he kills all of Mason's guards outside and inside the house. In the meantime, McCarthy arrives. Seeing the two dead guards at the gate, he alerts the State Police.
Mason and DeFranco figure out that Tyler has found them. A noise as of somebody approaching causes DeFranco to shoot out several windows in Mason's study. Tyler falls through one of the windows, appearing to be dead. Mason and DeFranco try to leave the house when a helicopter arrives, but DeFranco receives an electric shock when he touches the metal screen on an outside door, specially rigged by Tyler. The shock disrupts DeFranco's pacemaker. Before he dies of heart failure, Mason coerces and takes from him a key to a Swiss safe deposit boxcontaining all the funds DeFranco stole from the Mafia.
Mason prepares to escape, but is surprised by the appearance of Tyler, who points an UZI submachine gun at him. Mason tries to bribe Tyler with the key he took from DeFranco, proposing that they split the money, but urging immediate departure. Tyler considers the offer and places his gun on a table, hovering over it for a moment. He tells Mason that the plan won't work. Mason picks up the gun Tyler had set down and demands the key back. Tyler shows Mason that he has the bullets for the gun and a tube of Krazy Glue. With the gun glued to Mason's hands, Tyler shoves him out the front door. Misinterpreting his action of walking towards them, yet making pleas that, "It's a mistake," he is shot by the police waiting outside.
Tyler's "body" is found and taken to the morgue. He gets out of the body bag, removes the makeup simulating death and jumps out a window to escape. He is immediately confronted by McCarthy, who introduces himself and says they have a lot to talk about.
The film ends with Tyler impersonating DeFranco at the bank in Geneva and retrieving the $15 million in Mafia funds, after which he and McCarthy make a clean getaway with the cash. The closing credits include spectacular aerial shots of the Swiss Alps.
- Bryan Brown as Roland "Rollie" Tyler
- Brian Dennehy as Lt. Leo McCarthy
- Diane Venora as Ellen
- Cliff De Young as Martin Lipton
- Mason Adams as Col. Edward Mason
- Jerry Orbach as Nicholas DeFranco
- Joe Grifasi as Mickey
- Trey Wilson as Lt. Murdoch
- Tom Noonan as Varrick
- Jossie DeGuzman as Marisa Velez (Police computer expert)
- M'el Dowd as Miss Joyce Lehman
- Roscoe Orman as Capt. Wallenger
- Martha Gehman as Andy
- Angela Bassett as TV Reporter (This is her feature film debut)
The unsolicited screenplay was written by two novice writers, actor Gregory Fleeman and documentary filmmaker Robert T. Megginson. Producer Jack Wiener read their script, which was submitted as a low-budget television movie, and felt that it should be made into a theatrical release. Wiener and his co-producer Dodi Fayed hired Robert Mandel, an Off-Broadway director. They did not want to hire an action director, but instead wanted a director who would bring a realistic touch to the film and make the audience care about the main character. Mandel accepted the job because he wanted to dispel the perception that he was a "soft, arty director". Initially he was not impressed with the film's screenplay, which he felt was not well-crafted but felt that it provided for "a lot of action and a lot of things I did not have under my belt". In preparation for the film's action sequences, Mandel studied chase scenes from Bullitt and The French Connection. To pull off the film's special effects, the producers hired John Stears, who had worked on the first eight James Bond films and shared a special effects Academy Award for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
A preview screening in the San Fernando Valley produced some of the best statistics Orion Pictures had seen in some time. A week before its release, a film industry screening was very successful, as was its premiere at the United States Film Festival (later known as the Sundance Film Festival).
While F/X performed well at the box office, grossing over $20 million in North America (well over its $10 million budget), executives at Orion Pictures, which financed and distributed the film, felt that it could have performed even better with a different title. One executive claimed that no one understood what the title meant, but they accepted it because it was what the producers wanted. Wiener admitted that they thought that the two letters together would be "provocative" like MASH and admitted that they had made a mistake.
Vincent Canby praised the look of the film in his review for The New York Times, writing, "the movie, which looks as if it had been made on an A-picture budget, has a lot of the zest one associates with special-effects-filled B-pictures".Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four and wrote, "This movie takes a lot of delight in being more psychologically complex than it has to be. It contains fights and shootouts and big chase scenes, but they're all firmly centered on who the characters are and what they mean to one another". In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, "F/X is simply out to give a good time, which it does superbly". Paul Attanasio in his review for theWashington Post praised Brian Dennehy's performance: "Dennehy brings magic to the role - he's large, and he enlarges it. With his sly eyes and little can opener of a nose, his shoulders a yard wide, his hair massing in gray curls behind his ears, he dances through the movie like a mastodon in toe shoes". In his review for The Sunday Times, George Perry praised the film's premise as a "nice idea, but the effects themselves are merely ingenious when they might have been spectacular". Sheila Benson wrote in her review for the Los Angeles Times, "Where F/X floats above the crowd are in its performances; in the perfection of Miroslav Ondricek's photography, Mel Bourne's production design, John Stears' effects and Terry Rawlings' crisp, succinct editing; in the virtually unpredictable twists and turns of its plot, and in the sheer joy of watching a hero use his skill and his wits to solve a problem".