An unorthodox Santa Claus is fighting to save his declining business, while a neglected kid hires a hit man to kill him after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking.
We’ve come a long way when a violent parody of a Christmas film in Scrooged (1988) becomes the apparent inspiration for a real movie three decades later. Eshom and Ian Helms have been shopping their Fatman script around Hollywood since 2006, but the trailer that marketed it covers everything you want in a fraction of the time.
Fatman posits a world where Santa Claus does exist, only Chris Cringle’s (Mel Gibson) heyday is over because most kids are on the naughty list and therefore don’t receive toys, forcing him to accept a contract for the US government to have his elves manufacturer fighter jet parts. Elsewhere, repellent rich kid Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield) receives a lump of coal in his stocking, so vows revenge by ordering hitman Jonathan Miller (Walton Goggins) to take out ‘the Fatman’. And it’s a job Jonathan’s keen to accept, as he was once a bad kid on the naughty list too, so has developed a hobby in paying for genuine Santa’s Workshop antique toys.
The setup shouldn’t be this awkward and unclear, but it immediately begs further questions the film doesn’t care to answer. Chris is an old grouch, but was he always this way or has he become jaded? Why is he living in Alaska instead of the North Pole now? We never see him travelling around the world in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, but this presumably does happen? The US government know about Santa and have invested in his business, but are they the only ones who know the myth is true? It seems like everyone knows Santa is real, but how has that impacted the world if parents presumably have to buy gifts for their kids in case they don’t get anything from Santa himself?
There’s lots of things Fatman doesn’t answer, and perhaps some of it was a budgetary decision (like the lack of flying reindeer), and that cripples the film. When you hear the concept a grander story immediately springs to mind, involving a bitter assassin struggling to get to the North Pole and fighting elves and reindeer before a big face-off with Santa in his iconic red suit. But the best you get is a shootout in the snow between two men; one of whom only tangentially feels like Santa because he has a bushy beard. You could make the same film by removing all mention of Santa Claus and Christmas (to have it be about a hitman pursuing a teacher or bully he hated as a kid perhaps?) and it would play out much the same.
What I’m saying is the reason people want to watch Fatman is for the darkness inherent in the premise of someone trying to kill Santa. And if Father Christmas is going to be reimagined as a no-nonsense workshop manager, but one who can shoot guns if necessary, so much the better. The joy of Fatman rests in seeing the heartwarming myth of Santa Claus get dirtied up as an action-packed Rambo-style thriller. But this film doesn’t embrace half of what it might have been, either because of a serious lack of creativity or a vision that was scaled back to what $20M and Mel Gibson could let you get away with. (Gibson’s still box office poison in a lot of people’s eyes thanks to his racist outburst, so I did wonder if that’s why Cringle’s wife, Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), is played by a black actress.
Fatman plays things straight and contains too many bad or weird storytelling decisions, like giving a kid his own hitman (who comes round to help his young employer spook a classmate by threatening to electrocute her with a car battery). It’s the sort of choice you’d make for a parody trailer, where it doesn’t matter how ludicrous something is because it’s only there to make you chuckle once. But with a movie, audiences bump up against things that don’t make sense, or lack plausibility, and Fatman‘s tone isn’t broad or comical enough to make you accept rich children can organise assassinations.
Gibson’s career isn’t in a great place today, but whatever chance of a comeback Hacksaw Ridge (2016) gave him appears to have now evaporated. He’s still a talented actor and filmmaker, so it’s no surprise to see his performance as Cringle is the best thing about Fatman. I wish the script would have given him better things to do in the role, but Gibson’s demeanour and gruff appearance are perfect for the role of a tough-guy Santa who just wants a quiet life with his wife. I don’t know what attracted Gibson to Fatman, beyond getting a kick out of the bonkers premise, but he must have read the script and decided there was something exciting at work here. But he does seem to lean towards cynical action films his controversial presence can add some edge to, like Dragged Across Concrete (2018) and the upcoming Boss Level (2021).
Walton Goggins is good as the assassin, actually credited as ‘Skinny Man’, but it’s not exactly a stretch for him. He’s done his fair share of TV comedy alongside more dramatic film roles, so one imagines he felt Fatman would utilise both sets of his skills. But his character isn’t that funny (despite getting some of the better lines), which goes for everyone else too. It’s an odd movie because the cast behave like they’re in a generic action film, when leaning into the madness of it all would have made it more fun.
Ultimately, Fatman is an amusing concept that’s been poorly expanded upon and lamely executed by the writer-directors. It’s not funny or exciting, it doesn’t properly explore a society where Santa Claus is real, it doesn’t let any of its characters have tongue-in-cheek fun along the way, and it takes an excruciatingly long time for the inevitable ‘Skinny Man vs Fatman’ showdown to take place. And that’s all you’re really interested in seeing happen all the way through, particularly as nothing else happens to take your mind off that destination. Fatman thus becomes a depressing waiting game for a limp climax that wasn’t worth the wait.
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UK • CANADA • USA | 100 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writers & directors: Eshom Nelms & Ian Nelms.
starring: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chance Hurstfield, Robert Bockstael & Eric Woolfe.