On a whim several weeks ago I re-watched the 1986 movie, F/X. Although largely forgotten now, F/X was a big deal at the time, at least here in Australia. This was mainly because it starred a local actor, Bryan Brown. Brown was working in Hollywood for much of the latter part of the eighties and an Australian star getting top billing in a Hollywood film was not as common as is now. It must have done well in the US, too, because there was a sequel, imaginatively titled F/X 2, released in 1991 and also starring Brown.
The plot of F/X involved an Australian special effects technician, Roland ‘Rollie’ Tyler (Brown), who for some unspecified reason can’t return to home and is making a living working on various B-grade horror and crime flicks in New York. A cop attached to the witness protection program, Lipton (Cliff de Young), approaches Rollie to help out with a senior member of the New York mob, DeFranco (played by Jerry Orbach) who has turned informant. Lipton believes the best way to ensure the mob won’t come after DeFranco is to stage his assassination and he wants to pay Rollie a lot of money to help with the technical aspects of making sure it looks realistic, including acting as the assassin. The pretend hit goes off as planned only Rollie is framed for the murder and now wanted by the police. He is also on the run from a group of corrupt cops, including Lipton, who have been working with DeFranco to embezzle money from the mob.
F/X is a surprisingly good film. The plenty of action to keep things moving along and lots of opportunities for Rollie to come up with inventive special effects to get him self out of various tight spots. The cast also includes Diane Venora, Rollie’s actress girl friend who ends up taking a bullet meant for him, and Brian Dennehy, as a hard charging rogue cop who believes there’s something suspect about the DeFranco hit and doesn’t buy the story Rollie was responsible for it. But the main drawcard, for me, anyway, is Brown.
I’ve always been a big fan of Brown, his tough looking features, his acting chops, the whiff of Australian masculinity and the larrikin persona he brought to his work and which made even his bad films (and there were more than a few of these) worth watching. When I posted on Facebook about watching F/X, I was surprised by how many of my American friends had heard of Brown and liked him for many of the same reasons I did, even though many had only seen him in a handful of films. Roger Donaldson’s 1988 movie, Cocktail, was one everybody had seen. Interestingly, the other was the 1980 film, Breaker Morant, in which Brown played one of three Australian soldiers face a court martial for executing prisoners during the Boar War as a deflecting for crimes committed by a senior officer.
Breaker Morant is a good film and one of only a half a dozen or so locally war films, but Brown was also in a lot of other good films. Here’s my top five.
Money Movers (1978)
Some of you may already have heard me go on about Money Movers, a little known film that is proof Australia could knock out a heist noir as gritty and multi-layered as the best of them. It tells the story of two brothers, Brian Jackson (Brown) and his brother, Eric (Terence Donovan), who plan to rob off the armoured car firm they work for. Things get complicated when a criminal boss (iconic Australian actor Bud Tingwell in a rare role as a bad guy) discovers their scheme and wants a share of the action. Starring a who is who cast of local Australian actors from the seventies, director Bruce Beresford executes the classic theme of the paper-thin line between good and bad with gusto. Added into this mix are some uniquely Australian characteristics, including a strong riff on class relations and big business corruption in the seventies.
The Odd Angry Shot (1979)
Based on the local novel of the same name by William Nagle, The Odd Angry Shot follows the experiences of a group of Australian Special Air Service soldiers during the Vietnam War, from their departure when the war was still relatively popular, to their return home, by which time the public had soured on the conflict. Much of the film, the constant drinking, the boredom between engagements, R & R stints in Saigon, relationship breakups back home and an obligatory fist fight with American soldiers, feels a little dated now, but it is still worth watching. Brown takes a back seat to better known actors, Graham Kennedy, John Hargreaves and John Jarratt, but he still makes his presence felt.
Australia has done some great prison films, including Ghosts of the Civil Dead (1988) and the little known Everynight… Everynight, released in 1994 and based on a play about the early life of infamous contract killer Christopher Dale Flannery. Stir was inspired by the true-life prison riot at Bathurst Jail in 1974. Brown plays one of the inmates reluctantly drawn into the riot, China Jackson. It was his first starring role and he is terrific in it. The film is warts and all depiction of life in jail, including one of the most honest and non-sensationalised depictions of homosexuality in prison I have seen on film. Bob Jewson, who wrote the script, was serving a sentence for safe cracking in the Bathurst Jail when the 1974 riot that inspired the movie took place.
Far East (1982)
Think an Australian version of Casablanca and you’ve pretty nailed what this film is about. Set in a poor, corrupt, unnamed Asian country (the Philippines during the reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos) Far East focuses on Morgan Keefe (Brown), an ex-Vietnam veteran who runs a bar known as the Koala Club. One day Jo Reeves (Helen Morse) a former lover from his Saigon days walks into his bar. Jo’s husband, Peter, is a political journalist who has dropped into town to report on life under the dictatorship. While Peter embarks on a series of clandestine encounters with labour organisers and radical priests, Jo and Morgan rekindle their relationship. Then Peter and his female interpreter are kidnapped by plainclothes paramilitaries. What Jo needs is someone who can navigate the world of how things really operate not just how they appear, so she approaches Morgan for help. Morgan agrees to use his contacts to get the husband and his interpreter out of jail and the country. Brown plays Morgan like so many of his roles in the seventies and eighties, with a hefty dose of working class masculinity.
Beautiful Kate (2009)
A writer returns to his rural Australian home at the request of his sister who wants her brother to try and reconcile with their dying patriarch of a father (played by Brown). The visit triggers memories of the brother’s dead twin sister and dredges up a number of other terrible secrets about the families past. Beautiful Kate was written and directed by Brown’s wife, Rachel Ward, based on a novel by Newton Thornburg, the only other novel of his aside from Cutter and Bone to make it to the screen. Brown is terrific as the father, but he’s in good company. Ben Medelson plays the brother and Rachel Griffiths is excellent as the sister who has remained on the family farm to care for their father. Sophie Lowe was a newcomer when she played the dead sister but her performance was a break out one for her.