So Bad It’s Fatally Good | The Mythic Origins of Ireland’s only Martial Arts Epic Fatal Deviation

Fatal Deviation – the only martial arts epic filmed in Trim, County Meath- in many ways transposes genre tropes from mostly American films to small-town Ireland, in a kind of square peg round hole fashion that doesn’t quite work. The rowdy bar the central character fights in, the eastern symbolism like Buddha statues, or the international drug gang operating out of… Meath, are some examples. However, in doing this, the film becomes a kind of hauntological document.

The way in which aspiring martial arts star Jimmy Bennett was able to round up the whole community to work on this film, and the eerie quiet of streets where they film fight scenes, reflect the ennui of 1997 small-town Ireland. The scenes in the local supermarket are like a grainy, SVHS time-capsule of colours that only seem to exist in your memories. Ireland still used the punt. 9/11 had not happened. Mobile phones were either for London City Boys or the cast of Lethal Weapon.  It was summer for humanity. 

The genesis of Fatal Deviation is mired in myth, and so little information is known on some of the key players, but here is a potted history of what is considered the essential truth. In 1997, martial arts enthusiast and Jean-Claude Van Damme fan James Bennett learned that a studio in Hong Kong was interested in working with him. They knew the young Bennett could kick lads but they wanted to know if he could act. The film was his extended audition reel.

Though Bennett has tried to claim directing credit, the two directors were Shay Casserley and former Olympic bobsledder (!) Simon Linscheid (though apparently the footage Shay Casserley shot on Hi8 was not used in the final film). Linscheid was used to filming weddings and corporate videos.  In other areas however this is une film de Jimmy Bennett with Bennett co-writing, producing and starring.


“This has been my home for 10 years. Every day I plan to be as good a martial artist as my father. I am a man now and it’s time I went home. It is time I discovered who I am, what it is I should do, and what happened to my father”

The simple plot is essentially the trope of someone returning to their hometown, and sorting out the evil forces there. This is the archetypal plot of everything from westerns, to First Blood to Dead Man’s Shoes. Jimmy plays Jimmy. He leaves “St Claudes Reform School” as he has become a man. He returns to his fairly destitute looking home.

Jimmy is now a man about town, wearing his trousers up to his stomach and dripping in sweat. He makes a name for himself by beating up two “teenage” hoodlums (in actuality lads in their 30s or 40s) who are hassling love interest, Nicola, in the local supermarket. Later on, Jimmy rescues her again from employees of local gangster Loughlan (played in a baffling performance by a local solicitor who funded the film). They are harassing her to date Loughlan’s son Mikey (Mikey Graham listed in the credits as being from the “rock group” Boyzone). The fight catches the attention of a monk who is part of an ancient order of Irish monks who do kung-fu, despite it being Ireland. The monk offers to train Jimmy for the Bealtaine tournament – an annual “no rules” martial arts tournament in the castle – and reveals he trained Jimmy’s father.

Meanwhile, Loughlans gang offers for Jimmy to work for them. Jimmy refuses and continues courting Nicolla. Nicolla is kidnapped by the gang. Jimmy remembers (?) through his training that Loughlan killed his father. Jimmy competes in the tournament, finally defeating Loughlan’s big bad henchman “Seagull” with the titular “Fatal Deviation” move. He then goes to the quarry, kills Mikey, and rescues Nicolla. Nicolla and Jimmy enjoy a romantic picnic before being interrupted by Loughlan.

“You killed my son! Now I’m going to kill you just as I killed your father!”

“You killed my father. Now I’m going to kill you just as I killed your son”.

Jimmy disarms Loughlan and kills him with his gun, which doesn’t seem to mar the romantic picnic despite the fact Jimmy has blown a man’s head off at point blank (off screen of course). The banging music comes in and we are “treated” to bloopers. Credits roll. 

The myriad ways in which Fatal Deviation’s ramshackle nature is displayed are hilarious and incredible. Mikey cutting up cocaine with a Dunnes Stores club card. The note given to Jimmy that says “Loose or else” (sic).The scroll the monk presents Jimmy with, which was clearly made and printed on a 1990s home computer. The way the monks just casually drink in the local pub. The way in which it seems most of Mikey Graham’s scenes were filmed without any other actors, almost as if they just used his audition tapes. Harry Styles got Dunkirk and poor Mikey got this. 

The film’s influences are clear. The film is heavily based on the Van Damme vehicles Hard Target and Bloodsport, and Jimmy even does the “Van Damme kick” from Timecop. The film is one of the only Irish examples in the shot on video homemade action films of the 80s and 90s, the likes of which the website Bleeding Skull have been documenting for years. It bears comparison with the films “Mancunian Man” Cliff Twemlow was making in the UK. 

To see the film in a dichotomy of “good” or “bad” is to make a mistake. Having seen Fatal Deviation is to be enrolled in an exclusive club, where you can communicate in references. To me it recalls the early days of internet fandom, or when you swapped cult films with your mates on physical media. Indeed, when I first heard of the film youtube was in its nascence and I heard of someone who tangentially knew someone with one of the (now out of print) DVDs.  The film’s unique blend of Irish parochialism and genre cinema has ensured its become a mainstay of sessions. It means that when references turn up in unexpected places – like HBomberguy’s video on plagiarism – you can point at the screen like Leo Dicaprio in the meme. 

Unlike many “so bad it’s good” films, however, Fatal Deviation is not a chore to sit through. The only exception is the Bealtaine tournament, which is one of the most competent sequences in the film,but that means it makes you feel like you’ve been forced to sit through a video of your mates karate competition. The film’s ineptitude can’t help but be far more endearing than annoying. 

The film was made as a showcase for Bennett and in a sense it worked. Jimmy went to Hollywood and appeared alongside Van Damme in some films! Jimmy has been threatening since 2020 to make a sequel, Triple Deviation with “a major action star”. 

Whilst it remains to be seen if the golden boy returns to Trim, we can only live in hope. 

Fatal Deviation is available on youtube

Featured Image Credit