"First I'm hired to do a pretend murder," says crime and gore film effects specialist Rollie Tyler (Bryan Brown), summarizing F/X at the halfway point. "Then it's a real murder. And then the people that hire me try to murder me!" Earlier, federal witness protection agents engage Tyler to fake the death of a cooperative mob boss (Jerry Orbach) in order to throw erstwhile mafia minions off his ratty scent. Tyler does, with plaster-of-paris and blood capsule aplomb, and then things complicate to the point that we're treated to friendly recaps every ten minutes, not just from Tyler but from a local police officer (Brian Dennehey) who investigates the situation in mind-addled slow-motion from a sub-plotted distance.
It's hard to believe that Tyler, who scares off solicitors from his loft apartment with enormous monster puppets, could be enticed into such a malodorous imbroglio. But the soft underbelly of a script can't undermine the movie's most piquant attribute: That the effects guru is hired by the government not to fool the public, but himself. Once he does, he's starring in his own movie as a fugitive, burrowing gleefully into the tangibly self-defensive possibilities of the illusions he invents—a meta-comment exacerbated by the prevalence of CGI effects in today's movies. When corrupt law enforcers react with foolhardy belief to his tricks-of-the-trade—mirrors, fake firearms, stunt grease—their injuries and deaths are not artifice. Old school cinema becomes a truthfully deadly weapon at 24 frames per second.
Director Robert Mandel's surreptitious media essay, awash with 80s bunk (even diegetic Huey Lewis music), is abetted by a number of respected effects technicians, including John Stears. But the most masterful stunt is the structuring: Terry Rawlings' unhurried cross-cutting fashions F/X into a subversive "buddy" film between Brown and Dennehey, despite the fact that the two only meet in the final five minutes. And the punchline provided by their convergence suggests that the distinction between criminal and cop is as slippery as that between genuine and putative murder.