There are many things that I love about Fatal Deviation, Ireland’s first and – as far as I can tell – only martial arts film. What I love most however is that James Bennett, the mastermind responsible, has never apologised for it. So often, when something appears so many times on ‘Worst Movies Of All Time’ lists and has been ridiculed to the extent this has, the filmmakers step back. They claim they were in on the ‘joke’ all along or that external forces ruined their picture or that they were on the wrong drugs and made a grave mistake.
Bennett, on the other hand, has never sold out his film like that. He has stuck behind it no matter what. Even now, his official Facebook page regularly posts sincere set anecdotes and behind-the-scenes photos from Fatal Deviation and he’s announced his intentions to shoot a sequel. I have so much respect for this tenacity because if he ever pulled the irony card and claimed Fatal Deviation was a joke all along then, for one, he would be lying and, for another, it would wreck the sincere (and infectious) joy at the film’s core. You can say a lot of things about Fatal Deviation but you can’t say it’s not heartfelt.
I was a kid who grew up in the video library. When I discovered film, I didn’t want anything else out of life. I’ve never climbed a tree, I didn’t like playing outdoors and staying as far away from footballs as possible was key to surviving adolescence. My pleasure came from the TV screen and especially the stuff for grown-ups that I wasn’t supposed to watch. I loved horror, I loved action, I loved martial arts; the more heightened and over-the-top the better. The most time I spent outside back then was the summer when my friend Tony and I got hold of his dad’s camcorder and tried to make our own movies (and we only did it outside because there was too much fake blood flying around to get away with doing it inside).
Any kid who got bit early by the film bug will understand that making your own was the ultimate dream. Watching them as an adult, mine and Tony’s are, of course, incompetent beyond belief but it’s fascinating to see the way we stole shamelessly from our favourite directors and filtered these scenes through the boundless imagination of two idiot kids working with household props. We made the same ‘film’ – which we called Hell To Pay – three times that summer and then, at the end, used two VCRs to edit together the ‘best’ bits for an abomination we called Hell To Pay Ultimate.
We shot one new scene that was just a long fight and stuck squibs full of red food dye to our bodies. We’d take turns to burst them with bites, stabs, jabs, any means necessary. Unfortunately, these were not always the easiest things to pop. We could, of course, have edited out the bits where the squibs wouldn’t burst but that would ruin the one-take integrity of the scene so instead we improvised trash talk dialogue while grappling.
At one point, in a dire fake American accent, I shouted “You made me lose blood! I NEVER lose blood!” which may just be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever shouted, but I thought it sounded cool at the time. In fact, the whole thing was just the coolest we’d ever felt. We would watch our films over and over again, admiring our skill, ecstatic that we’d somehow transposed the violent magic of our minds onto the same television that played images of our heroes to us. For me, it was just about the only time I ever did feel cool at that age.
I mention all this because perhaps part of what makes me love Fatal Deviation is that I feel it comes from the same place as Hell To Pay Ultimate. A place that, as you get older – hung up with anxieties, self-doubt, fear of others’ opinions – gets harder to reach. A place where the inner child plays loud and proud and joyous and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks because it’s too busy doing high kicks, looking in the mirror and going “yeah, I look rad”. And that’s a special place, a fun place and, in its own super-awkward way, a cool place to be.
For those of you who’ve not seen Fatal Deviation, which may well be most of you if you’re reading this far, James Bennett plays Jimmy Bennett (character names are not his strong point) from Trim, Country Meath. At the start of the film, Jimmy walks out of reform school (despite being about 30), determined to make a go of his life and find out what happened to his missing father.
Unfortunately, within minutes of returning his home town, he starts a fight in the local Londis with two gang members. This scene is your first glimpse into the glorious absurdity that is Fatal Deviation. Although these are apparently dangerous men, they behave like little kids; trolley-racing through Londis, flinging bread rolls at each other, juggling with eggs and chuckling as they steal and share a bottle of orange juice. They even start pestering the shelf-stacker, Nicola (Nicola O’Sullivan), to go out with their friend Mikey. Bennett – muscles bursting out of his shirt, trousers inexplicably pulled up to his chest – walks in like some kind of battle robot, puts down his shopping basket, deadpans “You’re very brave, harassing young women” and kicks one of the guys into a display of toilet rolls. The other one runs away.
This rumble in the Londis, and a further encounter on the high street with more balding thugs, sets events in motion for a full-blown war between Bennett and the local ‘drug lords’. Mikey Graham (yes, THE “Mikey Graham from the rock band Boy Zone” (sic) as the credits proclaim!) is the local ringleader but his gang is controlled by an old man named Loughlan, one of the best and weirdest things about the film.
He’s played by Michael Regan, a non-actor whose delivery is so spectacularly offbeat and wrong, pretty much every line he says gets a big laugh. I’m not even sure he knows what’s going on half the time but he manages to just about get it out that he wants Bennett to either join the gang or be killed. Meanwhile, Mikey grows increasingly frustrated over not being able to woo Nicola – the Londis shopgirl of his dreams – because, of course, she is busy falling in love with Bennett…
You can probably see where most of this is going although it’s made even better when some Franciscan monks rock up and pin a scroll to a tree, heralding the “Bealtaine Tournament”, a “no rules” martial arts contest which allows the winner to “take control of the village”! This is particularly inspired and surreal because it has its obvious roots in eastern action films, where Shaolin monks – synonymous with kung fu – play a large part. Transposing this into Ireland, with a bunch of old bearded guys in traditional Franciscan robes – not in the least bit synonymous with kung fu – is so overwhelmingly strange, it’s magnificent.
They lurk in the background of almost every scene, playing pool in the local pub, etc, and eventually one of them (Mattie Finnegan – a game old sport who looks like Father Christmas and has a crack at some stick-fighting despite his age and the fact that he’s plainly never done anything like that before) helps train Bennett to win the contest.
It’s hard to view Fatal Deviation objectively because it’s so far from anything that’s released in public (in addition to its original VHS release, there’s also been a DVD of it as the cult following grows). I can’t deny that there are some technical issues with the film. It’s shot on S-VHS (apparently they started shooting on Hi8 but broke the camera!). Three people have been credited as director (including Bennett) and one of them is Shay Casserley, whose work prior to this was mostly private wedding videos. In an oddly adorable interview shot for Irish TV while Fatal Deviation was being made, Casserley states that, despite his previous credentials, he’s viewing the film as “a professional project”. Heaven knows how it would’ve ended up if he hadn’t.
The acting is horrific, with Mikey Graham probably the least worst, but Bennett has a certain screen presence that comes from understanding the unique appeal of action stars. After all, his idol Van Damme is hardly renowned for his acting ability but he sure knows how to strike a pose. And this is the odd thing about Fatal Deviation. Despite such a lack of budget or natural flair for movie-making, every now and again it cuts straight to the heart of what makes action cinema so great; the visceral thrill of tough guys performing idiotic levels of violence.
Bennett is a dedicated martial artist (who now runs his own kenpo karate school in L.A.) and, although the choppy editing and cock-eyed choreography doesn’t get this across in the film, there are a few cool moves. There’s also an array of reckless kamikaze stunts to enjoy, although they are more Jackass than Jackie Chan. A guy named Peter Crinion is flung over a wall and nearly breaks his neck for real. Another, John Kiely, is kicked in the balls and thrown face-first into a gravel wall (you can see the grazes when he bangs his head on it). The best stunt in the movie – a car rolling over during a chase scene – wasn’t even supposed to happen. It was an accident that nearly killed everyone involved and it’s hard to not admire their level of devotion to the craft when THEY KEPT THE CAMERA ROLLING THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE THING.
Low-rent action aside, there are so many weird and wonderful moments in Fatal Deviation that you’ll want to watch over and over. Witness the dramatic scene in which Bennett receives a threat regarding the tournament (a note that reads “LOOSE OR ELSE” (sic), initially unfolded upside-down, but why retake when you can just sheepishly turn it the right way up?). There’s the romantic picnic spread that consists of just an empty wine bottle, two bananas, an apple and EIGHT oranges (martial arts tip: always top up on Vitamin C).
Sometimes the film reveals its mysteries and other times not. Nicola and Bennett’s incongruous and curiously brief horse-riding date is explained by the outtake at the end that shows Nicola taking an almighty fall from the horse, but the scene with the gratuitous naked cowboy (who acquired burns to his backside filming his totally meaningless scene) remains an enigma. Still, if you’re not quoting gonzoid dialogue like “You made me look bad… and that’s not good!” to each other for weeks (or years, in some people’s cases) afterwards, you may need to reassess your sense of what’s good in life.
Watching Fatal Deviation may well be like watching someone’s home movies but the love they poured into it is so big and inclusive that you’re immediately sharing the joy with them (especially if, like nerdy teenage me, you’ve ever had that dream of making your own films). I’ve watched it with multiple friends and, while no one will ever say it’s the new Enter The Dragon, they’ve all had a great time and agreed it’s unique.
The action tropes are familiar, from the look-straight-at-the-camera wisecracks (Predator has “stick around”… Fatal Deviation has “ENJOY THE SLIDE”) to the plot twists (“You killed my father! Now I’m going to kill you like I killed your son!”) but the fact that they’re transposed onto almost literally THE most unlikely setting of a rural Irish town make this special. It’s Bloodsport meets Father Ted – which should be a disaster – but done with such obvious sincerity and pleasure that it’s hard to find anything to actually dislike. There’s never a boring moment in Fatal Deviation (which, for an action film, is the highest compliment) and you will never, ever see anything else quite like it. Unless, of course, Bennett gets the sequel off the ground…
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