MOVIE REVIEW : SAVVY STORY, ACTORS FOR SPECIAL 'F/X'

Times Film Critic

A love of the world of movies permeates the first-class, crackling excitement of "F/X" (citywide Friday), giving a rare dimension to this thriller. A sophisticated, savvy film about a New York-based super movie effects man (Bryan Brown), "F/X" has a throwaway, seductive air, the better to lure us in.

Brown's been hired to stage a fake assassination of a Mafia kingpin (Jerry Orbach), the better to let him disappear into the government's Witness Relocation Program.

Light, fast, easy and confident, "F/X's" makers breeze through an opening sequence, a virtuoso display of some of the field's noisier and more spectacular effects (a bullet-spattered gun moll, a waiter flambe, exploding fish tanks and drenched customers; it's a sendup, perhaps, of "Year of the Dragon's" nightclub carnage). Immediately, we're shown the behind-the-scenes of these effects, at which Brown is a master. It's a smooth move, since it now makes us feel like insiders.

And from that privileged perch we watch the insular, in-jokey life of people to whom nothing is ever what it seems. There's Brown (of "Breaker Morant" and TV's "The Thorn Birds" and "A Town Like Alice"), the Australian, whose effects in "Vermin From Venus," his assistant proudly announces, got him deported from his home turf. His wizard's studio is crammed with mannequins and monsters: his signature effect from "Rock-a-Die Baby" or the ghoulish matriarch from "I Dismember Mama," spilling red plastic innards (that title, horror fans will be quick to tell you, is real, a 1972 gem by director Paul Leder). It's a breakthrough American role for Brown, who combines the physical intensity and fierceness of a young Kirk Douglas with the cool and presence of Michael Caine at the time of "The Ipcress File."

His lady love is an actress. She's cropped-haired, big-eyed Diane Venora, who takes a flatly written role and breathes life into it. You don't like Venora, you adore her--within minutes, a crucial point for the film. Her comment on the world she inhabits is a pointed one: "Nobody cares about making movies about people anymore. All they care about is . . . special effects."

First-time screenwriting partners Robert T. Megginson and Gregory Fleeman created their ingenious plot from well-used ingredients--an innocent dupe used for his special skills; bad apples in an "incorruptible" agency; a hard-nosed cop on the outs with his rules-and-regulations department. To these elements they have added a strong point of view and generous amounts of humor, with memorable results.

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.

(However, it is consistent with the genre. There's one extremely violent fight scene, although even it is marked with a rare bit of invention. Where "F/X" might stir heated debate is in its stunning last quarter, since some of Brown's very special effects are, in fact, lethal. Does extreme provocation allow him to dispense with due process of law entirely?)

With his adroitness in storytelling and with actors, director Robert Mandel almost persuades us past such sticking points. Mandel is a relatively new name to audiences; his first feature, "Independence Day," had the shakiest of releases nationwide (in Los Angeles it went first to cable). An ambitious, imperfect film, it contained a stunning performance by Dianne Wiest as a battered wife, and it marked Mandel as a director to watch.

His every character in "F/X" is carefully and vividly drawn--Brown and Venora; the redoubtable Brian Dennehy as the cop who has pursued Mafia turncoat Orbach for too long to relinquish him to another detective; Cliff De Young and Mason Adams (more widely known as Ed Asner's managing editor in TV's "Lou Grant") as federal agents; blond Martha Gehman as Brown's adoring assistant, and Jossie deGuzman, so good as the police computer operator who helps Dennehy that you hope a little something gets going between them.

(And while praise is being dispensed, a word for producers Dodi Fayed and Jack Wiener, who, if press material can be believed, apparently saw "F/X's" singular intelligence and imagination when it was an unsolicited manuscript.)

Even as the plot whips along, "F/X" (like "The Stunt Man," which it resembles in a less existential way) forces us to consider the sometimes arbitrary line between fiction and reality. Sometimes with a breathtaking visual, like the theatricality of the title sequence in which--as though with the raising of a scrim--an artificial city skyline suddenly becomes a real one, until seconds later we realize that the "real" one is part of a movie. Sometimes it's a moment in which an actual action echoes one we've just seen from the movie-within-a-movie. And sometimes it's in a line like Venora's--except that the beauty of "F/X" is that they care equally for the people and the special effects.

'F/X'

An Orion Pictures Corp. release of a Dodi Fayed-Jack Wiener production of a Robert Mandel film. Executive producer Michael Peyser. Producers Fayed, Wiener. Director Mandel. Screenplay Robert T. Megginson, Gregory Fleeman. Music Bill Conti. Camera Miroslav Ondricek. Editor Terry Rawlings. Production design Mel Bourne. Costumes Julie Weiss. Music Bill Conti. Special effects consultant John Stears. Special makeup supervisor Carl Fullerton. Art director Speed Hopkins. Set decorator Steven Jordan. Sound editor Jim Shields. With Bryan Brown, Diane Venora, Brian Dennehy, Cliff DeYoung, Mason Adams, Jerry Orbach, Joe Grifasi, Martha Gehman, Jossie deGuzman, Roscoe Orman, Trey Wilson.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).

Running time: 1 hour, XX minutes.

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