Sunday, April 2, 2017

Fatal Defense (Maple Island Films, Daro Film Distribution, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The first of Lifetime’s “premiere” movies last night was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on the network! Judging from the title, Fatal Defense, I was expecting a story in which a woman defense attorney gets a man acquitted of a terrible crime, then realizes he’s actually guilty and tries to nail him for something else, while of course he finds out and tries to kill her. No such luck: instead it was a story of a woman, Arden Walsh (Ashley Scott), terrorized by — get this: her martial-arts instructor. Arden is living in a nice suburban home and raising her eight-year-old daughter Emma (Sophie Guest) as a single parent — dad bailed on them for reasons that are never quite explained beyond that he liked to argue and she didn’t (he was an attorney and after they broke up he married another lawyer, so Arden jokes that now he gets to argue all the time) — when a burglar in a ski mask breaks into her home when both she and the daughter are there. The burglar brandishes the sort of knife you’d use to cut fish open and take their guts out prior to cooking them, and threatens Arden with it — and Arden hears her sick daughter (she has a cold) asking for a glass of water and tells the burglar she’d better get the girl some water before she gets suspicious. Amazingly, director John Murlowski and writer Steven Palmer Peterson expect us to believe that a) the burglar buys this and lets Arden out of his sight, and b) once out of the burglar’s direct control Arden does absolutely nothing (like call the police on her cell phone — this is 2017, after all, so she undoubtedly has one) to get help, while c) the daughter notices nothing wrong until the burglar leaves and Emma finds her mom strapped to a chair with duct tape. (At first I thought the guy was not only going to steal from her but rape her and the duct tape was to do S/M-style bondage, but no such luck.)

Thinking she’s actually giving Arden good advice, her sister Gwen (Laurie Fortier) advises her to take a self-defense class, and the instructor turns out to be a muscular hunk named Logan Chase (David Cade). Well, any veteran Lifetime watcher knows what that means: just about every reasonably attractive male in a Lifetime movie turns out to be a black-hearted psycho villain, and Logan is no exception. He runs his class with a visceral intensity and a line of verbal abuse a military drill sergeant might have regarded as too extreme, though instead of picking on Arden he seems to be taking a shine to her and we wonder if he’s going to form a demented crush on her. Only the first time they’re making eyes at each other and she seems willing to have sex with him, instead of responding as any normal straight male would he grabs her, turns her around and ties her hands behind her back, explaining later that the point of him doing this is to teach her never to let her guard down, no matter how safe she may feel. Later he actually ties her up, kidnaps her and throws her in the trunk of his car, then challenges her to figure out how to escape. Naturally on this one she does complain to the police, but the woman detective investigating the case says that because she signed a release form agreeing to be subjected to his “extreme” training methods, she really doesn’t have a case against him — at least not one the authorities would be willing to prosecute. Logan explains that Arden let him down by not figuring out how to escape: she was supposed to realize that her wrists were thin enough she could work her way out of the restraints tying her arms together, and then figured out a way to pop the trunk open from inside so when the car stopped, she could escape. At this point we’re beginning to wonder whether the martial-arts instructor from hell was also the burglar who targeted her initially — an impression reinforced by shots of a ski-masked figure who turns out to be Logan skulking around her house — but in about the one genuinely surprising twist in Peterson’s otherwise mind-numblingly predictable script Logan actually breaks into the home of the real burglar, who turns out to be a bald-headed schlub with a tendency to revisit the scenes of his past crimes to find out how the people he targeted are doing now that he’s taken away their ability to take their personal safety for granted. “I want to see how I’ve changed them,” he boasts.

Of course he catches Logan in his home and thinks he’ll be able to take out Logan and preserve his ill-gotten gains (which are lying about in plain view all over the place, by the way), but instead Logan overpowers him and then offers him a bankroll if he’ll sneak back into Arden’s place and, without waking her or otherwise letting her know he’s there, plant a packet of illegal recreational drugs in her bedroom closet “because I have to do something to discredit her in the eyes of the police.” Only she wakes up and drives him away, and later Logan kills him. Eventually Logan gives us what in writer Peterson’s mind passes for an explanation of why he is how he is — it seems that one day he and his wife were driving through the Angeles National Forest when he pulled over to help what he thought was another driver having trouble with his car. Said other driver was actually a nasty crook who was determined to rob Logan and rape his wife, and though Logan successfully got away from the guy, his wife was not so lucky: the crook shot and killed her. It also turns out that Logan lives out of a trailer parked inside a warehouse (just like Ben Affleck’s character in The Accountant) and of course one wall is plastered with photos of Arden, thereby fulfilling the usual movie criterion for unrequited love. In the climax, Logan puts Arden through her “ultimate test” — he kidnaps her daughter from school and challenges Arden to find her on her own without the police helping (you knew the daughter would be kidnapped, didn’t you? If you didn’t, you flunk Lifetime Clichés 101), though Arden’s sister Gwen (ya remember Arden’s sister Gwen?) helps track the girl and ultimately drills Logan at the end, killing him. Fatal Defense was such a perfect assembly of Lifetime’s most risible clichés it achieves a sort of demented perfection on its own, though it’s so mind-numbingly predictable and so ineptly written and stage the likely reaction it’s going to elicit from anyone is, “Why the hell am I watching this?”