Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Jim: Is it safe to say that we would both identify as children of the ’90s, Ken? You at least would remember the decade: The cocaine-fueled insanity of the ’80s was slowly fading away, but that decade’s lasting impact on action cinema was slow to recede. Jean Claude Van Damme had starred in Bloodsport in 1988, but it’s safe to say that the film was still wedged firmly in the mind of a small band of Irish action junkies when they attempted to recreate it via Fatal Deviation in 1998. This month’s movie is an ode to American action cinema, except executed in run-down basements and backyards with the kind of home video equipment typically used to film children’s birthday parties.
Ken: Let’s not discount the obvious influence of Mortal Kombat on this particular gem you’ve uncovered, Jim. All tournaments are, as you know, organized by secretive orders of monks—whether those monks are Shaolin priests from the northern parts of China or, I guess, Catholic monks from Ireland.
Jim: Were those monks in this film? I had assumed they were wizards.
Ken: I think we were still operating prior to 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons multi-classing rules back then. You don’t even want to know what contortions you’d need to go through to get a wizard/monk build going, sir.
Jim: Regardless, Fatal Deviation holds the dubious distinction of being Ireland’s “first martial arts movie,” the Irish having historically been known more for barroom brawling and bare-knuckle boxing than wushu. Its star, Jimmy Bennett (whose character name is the same in the film, of course), clearly fancied himself a Van Damme in the making, as his “reform school” room in the beginning of the film literally has a framed photo of Van Damme that can be seen if you look closely. Make no mistake, this film is a vanity project for the guy, although a pretty sincere one. Tell us about Jimmy’s background, if you please.
Ken: Jimmy’s had a hard life. As he informs us in voice-over from the very beginning, he fled from home after his father’s death and now, having grown up and consumed what I assume was about a half a metric ton of powdered protein, he wants to return home and find the men responsible. So he packs a gym bag full of sentimental photos and then goes back to his abandoned and never re-sold childhood home, unchanged since the days when his father dressed him up in a karate gi and taught him how to punch and kick.
Jim: I love the montage of him fixing up the old place by just righting the chairs that had been flipped over in the decade of his absence.
Jim: 10 years of black mold in this couch? Who cares, flip it over.
Ken: I have to imagine nobody cleaned up the massive blood splotch from where his father was killed by … was that a katana, Jim? Did an old fogey of an Irish gangster decapitate his father in a latter flashback? Because that’s what I thought happened, but it was some dark, grainy footage.
Jim: That is indeed what happened, as far as I can tell. The town is run by a gang boss named Loughlan, who murdered Jimmy’s confusing, Japanese Buddhist father with a katana, because this movie is about two squares away from Samurai Cop on the WTF Movie Family Tree. Loughlan’s son “Mikey” is another one of the film’s chief antagonists, filling the role of “douchebag jock” who is constantly trying to force himself on the town’s resident hot babe/Jimmy’s love interest. You probably are unaware of the fact that Mikey is played by the film’s one semi-famous person, Mikey Graham, who was a member of a hugely successful Irish boy band named “Boyzone.” These are all facts.
Oh yeah, I think this former boy band member will be a worthy foe for our Irish karate master protagonist.
Ken: I was going to say that Mikey’s performance is actually the most natural-seeming in the movie. He gives some of the vanishingly few line deliveries that don’t make the viewer cringe. So that actually makes a great deal of sense.
Jim: Yes, he’s at least had the distinction of being on stage before—unlike Jimmy, who is great at doing martial arts but has clearly never tried to memorize a line in his life. I watched half of the movie thinking that he looked oddly familiar before realizing that he actually looks almost exactly like WWE NXT superstar Kyle O’Reilly … who is also a martial arts-practicing fighter from Ireland! Seriously, look at this.
Just a couple of rugger bugger boyos acting the maggot, isn’t that bang on?
Jim: It’s uncanny, right?
Ken: They kinda do resemble one another. I’m envisioning a twins-lost-at-birth tournament adventure.
Ken: Anyway, Jimmy is returning to what is a truly downtrodden and preyed-upon little town. Folks can’t even go grocery shopping without 30-something year-old hooligans causing mayhem throughout the store. Good thing Jimmy’s back to lay down the law, though, right?
Jim: If by “lay down the law” you mean “unprovoked kick to the genitals,” then yes. He does exactly that to the local hooligans who were being rude to our leading lady—her name is Nicola, as in Tesla—and then promptly saves the same woman again from different goons about five minutes later. While executing one of the most gloriously unnecessary “slide across a car hood” moves that you’ve ever seen.
Ken: Jimmy busts out his special moves with the most paper-thin justification at pretty much any provocation real or imagined in this flick, it’s true. A bar fight later on in the film ends with Jimmy beating the crap out of everybody, the bartender included, when a member of the wait staff is roughed up by one of Loughlan’s goons. This is after he pounded the two bouncers out front into the ground for not letting him in.
Jim: He is indeed constantly beating the piss out of strangers for little to no reason. The bar brawl puts an end to the idea that Jimmy might be persuaded to come work for Loughlan, which the gang boss suggests in a line of dialog I found particularly amusing: “Wouldn’t it be ironic to get the son of the man I killed working for us?”
Jim: Uh, I guess so, but did you really think he was going to volunteer for that position? Loughlan clearly doesn’t know what kind of movie he’s in here.
Ken: Ordinarily, Jim, I would say this was the most ridiculous plot point in the entire movie. There needs to be all kinds of sophisticated setup for the whole “trick the son of the man I murdered into becoming my pawn” thing to be a viable story theme. This 76-minute feature is not capable of and is not trying to do that degree of heavy lifting. BUT, this is NOT the most ridiculous plot point in the entire movie at all. That would be the aforementioned monk/wizard-looking fellow who observes Jimmy beating up some thugs and then approaches him … to offer him kung fu training. So he can compete in the local, fight-to-the-death martial arts tournament.
Jim: … literally implied to be sponsored by the local Catholic church, yes.
Ken: Those monks thwomping their foreheads with boards in Monty Python and the Holy Grail were working on their breaking technique, Jim.
The ancient Irish Catholic/Filipino art of escrima stick fighting.
Jim: This guy—I never actually caught his name—is tempting to describe as Gandalf-esque, but that would be too charitable. He’s really more of a Radagast. In a Jackie Chan movie, or a competent martial arts film, this role would be filled by some guy like Sammo Hung, and he would be revealed at some point to be really competent at martial arts despite his appearance when he beats down a bunch of thugs. Fatal Deviation, on the other hand, doesn’t really have that option because he’s just an old man that they found at the bus station. So the main thing he does is tack up computer paper flyers that are printed (on only one side) in “ancient scroll” font, advertising the church’s $5 entry fee death tournament.
Jim: Which, Mikey points out, will allow the gang to “take control of this town” if they win. No reason is offered as to why or how exactly this would work.
Ken: I interpreted this as giving their gang some kind of legitimacy? Because it seems like the locals love them some no-holds-barred, neck-snapping underground death tournaments. They’re very enthusiastic about them, anyway.
Ken: This is important enough, by the way, that Loughlan doesn’t want Jimmy competing, even though a hooded monk hand-delivers the invitation to Jimmy and then VANISHES during a cut-away.
Jim: Instead, the gang wants their appointed champion, a man named “Seagull,” to take the crown. If this thing is indeed Mortal Kombat-inspired, as you implied, then clearly this guy is Goro.
Jim: There are also all manner of other competitors in the tournament, and I want to point something out here—this film contains some of the weirdest, sorriest-looking extras I’ve ever seen in an action movie. Truly, this is the definition of a motley crew. I went to the trouble of collecting some of my favorite rejects from society here. They are a frightful bunch.
Jim: The ’90s were not kind to Ireland, Ken.
Ken: Yeah, one wonders what these poor fellas were compensated in. I have to imagine it wasn’t Irish pounds.
Jim: Cigarettes and blended whiskey, is my guess.
Ken: So, Loughlan doesn’t want Jimmy fighting, and as we all know, the best way to do this is to straight up murder him in broad daylight, or, failing that, kidnap Nicola and threaten her life unless he throws the tournament. To those ends, they send guys on dirt bikes after them while they’re in the midst of a little picnic. What follows is unquestionably one of the most hilariously bad car chases I’ve ever seen.
Jim: It’s an Andy Sidaris-level chase scene, whose big moment is Jimmy standing up on the seat of a motorcycle (although suspiciously, we can’t see his bottom half while doing this), firing a handgun at oncoming cars. Which reminds me, I want to point out just how pathetic the gunshot foley is in Fatal Deviation—it has the weakest gunshot noises I’ve ever heard in an action movie. It just sounds like a succession of Snapple bottles opening.
Ken: The sound was pretty sad, because they actually did bother bringing some okay squibs to the party. One or two guys catch some lead and it looks like an effects person actually tried to make it look like they got shot.
Jim: I honestly did not notice that; I was clearly too distracted by the sound effects. And also maybe the excellent Irish single malt that I was drinking in honor of the occasion. Anyway, the date of the big tournament finally arrives, and all the contenders cram themselves into what appears to be the corner of someone’s basement, filled with green fog. Paint us a picture of the savagery on display.
Ken: This is unquestionably the most vicious, most harrowing, most unbelievably gory Irish death tournament that can be shoved into a roughly 15-by-15 foot space, Jim. (Or I guess 4.572 by 4.572 meter space.) A very, very long succession of mostly interchangeable white dudes square off in a series of punch-ups as a group of folks who look like they’re ready for a walking tour of Killarney cheer them on. We are informed that THERE ARE NO RULES!!!, so a few fights end with neck snaps or face-punch-kills.
KICK HIS FECKIN’ ARSE, YE KNOB!
Ken: This goes on INTERMINABLY, but in fairness to the proceedings, the actual fight choreography itself is not stupid. It just can’t possibly look that good when you’re shoved into a poorly lit, poorly miked area with no space or ability for anybody to shoot the fights well.
Jim: As the final bout between Jimmy and the invincible Seagull—Seagull apparently being the toughest name available at the time—reaches its conclusion, the villain has Jimmy on the ropes until his monk mentor begins to chant “Fatal Deviation! Fatal Deviation!” Did you understand this, Ken? Is the Fatal Deviation a martial arts move that Jimmy was taught? Did that happen in a deleted scene?
Ken: Jim, I didn’t even register that was what he was saying. I could not make out what the hell he was babbling on about, and just figured it was faux Latin. And no, I cannot once remember the title call having been brought up during Jimmy’s intensive training with the monk earlier.
ED. NOTE: Turns out, there is indeed a karate move that is honestly called a “fatal deviation.”
Jim: It just seems weird for the TITLE OF THE FILM to have no bearing on anything, ya know? Perhaps we’re just spoiled by the competent American action movie market. Here we are, expecting such gaudy things as titles that make sense.
Ken: I suppose if Cameron Crowe can get away with Vanilla Sky, we can let a Fatal Deviation slide. I’m less charitable toward the ransom note the bad guys slip to Jimmy. The one that says “LOOSE OR ELSE.”
Jim: Loose, or we won’t let ya back in the town pub where you beat up a bunch of innocent bystanders yesterday, ye manky dosser!
Ken: Jimmy does win anyway, of course, because his Irish Yoda insists he must and offers no plan for how this won’t result in his girlfriend getting killed. It’s okay though, because once he KOs Seagull, he stops the bad guys from making a call on their cell phone with a DIVE KICK off the monastery roof and then catches the skyward phone and hangs up on Loughlan before the bad guys can inform their boss that he didn’t throw the fight. I stopped laughing long enough to appreciate how totally Bennett seems to understand action movies.
Jim: He at least seems to know that you end an action movie with a huge, context-less, John Woo-style gunfight, although the director has seemingly no idea of how you might stage such a scene. It feels like Jimmy just described a gun battle from The Killer or Hard Boiled to a few guys who had never seen an action movie themselves, and then they tried to replicate it, right down to the akimbo pistols firing opposite directions at dudes diving through the air.
Jim: And lest we forget: A naked cowboy in a redneck jacuzzi, heated by an open fire, who we’ve never seen before.
Ken: I’m glad I didn’t just miss a detail. So I wasn’t imagining it: That naked cowboy really was a total non-sequitur.
Jim: Completely. They just had access to a naked cowboy in a fire-heated bathtub, and someone said “We’d better get this in the movie.”
The soon-to-be-naked cowboy.
Ken: Anyway, the crew also managed to flip an actual car during the scene, so there’s that.
Jim: Actually, I have a funny bit of information on said car crash. Did you think it looked pretty good?
Ken: I’ll say that it looked like there was an actual car and that it was actually crashing. But do tell.
Jim: Well, it looked like it was actually crashing, because it actually crashed. Only it wasn’t intended to crash at all. According to what I’ve read on Fatal Deviation, the crash was a complete accident—the stunt person just lost control and crashed it, and they decided to keep it in the movie because “now our movie can have a car crash in it!” So they just added a couple shots of goons shooting at the car to give the crash a reason for having happened.
Ken: See, I respect that hustle. Why let accidental property destruction go to waste?
Jim: Anyway, that’s pretty much it for Fatal Deviation. Given that it ends with a roughly five-minute blooper reel, this thing is actually a remarkably breezy watch—it’s only like 70 minutes before the credits start rolling, so it BARELY qualifies for feature status.
Jim: Bennett, if you were curious, is still working. Fatal Deviation was his first movie—which is pretty obvious—but he’s actually picked up the pace of appearances lately, with four credits in 2018 alone. Kudos to him for looking more jacked and roidy than ever, now in his 40s.
Ken: I do want to close by saying that although this is clearly a poorly written and utterly ridiculous vanity project, it’s still one into which apparent effort was put. Somebody directed all those stunts, and they only look janky because they weren’t shot on cutting-edge cameras. Some martial arts stunt men just shouldn’t be in charge of the story. David Leitch, these guys ain’t.
Jim: The film’s failings certainly don’t begin with stunt work, that’s for sure.
Jim: Perhaps next month, we can just watch a Jean Claude Van Damme rip-off from another country? Surely Bollywood has produced a few.
Ken: I’ll be there and ready to bay for blood from the crowd, sir.