The thought of Mel Gibson as a grizzled Santa Claus stalked by a hitman played by Walton Goggins will understandably make some folks run screaming from the room. For those of us who were actually excited by this most ludicrous of high concepts, however, Fatman offers some small pleasures. Chief among them is, in fact, that cast. Gibson — a live wire who admittedly now comes with a freighter full of baggage, and whose charms as an actor have long curdled into something brittle, angry, and troubling — turns out to be an unnervingly apt choice for the lead role: an embittered St. Nick struggling to make ends meet thanks to an ongoing decline in children worthy of his gifts, and who spends much of his free time shooting cans on the fence surrounding his property. After all, there was always something weirdly creepy and vengeful about Santa Claus, wasn’t there? (A lump of coal, really?)
Goggins, too, makes for a surprisingly subtle shape-shifter: He cuts a lean, slick figure, ideal for an assassin — he’s referred to as the Skinny Man, though we eventually learn his name is Jonathan Miller — but he’s also so stone-faced that he becomes the film’s best and biggest joke, a self-important professional who travels with a suitcase full of matching black outfits. The set-up, of course, is absurd: Miller is enlisted by a rich, entitled brat (Chance Hurstfield) who, furious that he’s been put on Santa’s naughty list, demands the head of Chris Cringle. So, Miller tracks Santa through the USPS — leaving a string of postal-worker bodies behind him — and makes his way to Canada. Meanwhile, the not-so-jolly (and not particularly fat) Santa, feeling the financial pinch, has become a military contractor, putting his factory of elves to work making control panels for the U.S. Air Force. What that last bit has to do with anything in the rest of the story, I’m still not sure. (Is it supposed to be symbolic? Evocative? Who knows?)
Despite the brazenly silly premise, Fatman doesn’t really go for any big laughs, with the jokes remaining mostly on the dry side — from offhand references to Santa’s supply chain and cash-flow problems, to his drawer full of hand exercisers, to his elves’ established security protocols. There’s nothing wrong with subtle or contextual humor, of course, but here, frankly, it feels like a waste of a pretty great concept. Of course, that is part of the joke — that the film is not at all a joke, that it’s an honest-to-goodness action flick with people getting shot in the head and everything. You can sort of imagine the pitch meeting: “What if we made a hitman movie about Santa Claus, and played it completely straight? Nobody will expect that!” The flip side of this is that if you sell us an action picture about Santa Claus, we might spend part of the time wondering about the wittier, more imaginative movie we’ve conjured in our heads.
In their defense, writer-directors Eshom and Ian Nelms have the action-genre beats down pat, and they stage shootouts with clarity and proficiency. But mere competence will only get you so far. The mind reels at what someone like Terry Gilliam might have done with this. Or the Coen Brothers. Or Tim Burton. Or Jeunet and Caro (who once so wonderfully captured the inherent eeriness of St. Nick in the opening scene of The City of Lost Children). Fatman is so enamored of its central idea that it forgets to take that idea any further.
Look, I’m a big believer in assessing the movie I was given, and not so much the movie I had hoped for. But sometimes, you have to marvel at the missed opportunities. The key issue with Fatman isn’t so much that it should have been a zany comedy (or any kind of comedy, really) but that it should have been something. The appeal of such a wonderfully dissonant concept — a gritty action movie, starring Santa Claus — should be the delicate tonal balance required to pull off something at once so straight-faced and yet so silly. But Fatman refuses to strike any kind of balance at all, and the whole Santa thing becomes secondary to the thoroughly generic shoot-’em-up playing out onscreen. To put it another way: If the character at the center of this movie wasn’t Santa Claus, Fatman would just be another unremarkable, not-particularly-interesting action movie. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much exactly what it is.
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