by Philip Price
Director: Eshom Nelms & Ian Nelms
Starring: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins & Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Runtime: 1 hour & 40 minutes
“Fatman” is the kind of movie that is primed for embrace by movie nerds across the internet based on the concept alone. It almost doesn't even matter how well the writing/directing team of brothers Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms pull this off or don't because all that really matters is that the idea remains the centerpiece. Whether everything surrounding the premise enhances the experience or not the fact they can say 64-year old Mel Gibson was down for playing a disgruntled Santa Claus who has to contend with a hitman sent by a disappointed child is all they really needed to say to sell anyone on it. What does in fact actually sell said pitch though, is that the Brothers Nelms seemingly approached their script as if it were any other post-2010 Gibson actioner. In other words, Saint Nick could just as easily have been played by Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn or any other number of aging actors that tried their hand at the "old man action movie" genre post-“Taken.” While it may have been fun to see someone like Tom Cruise give this lowly low-budget B-movie a kick in the pants by playing into the bait and switch of the tone, Gibson is admittedly a perfect choice for this project. As the man will be working to rebuild his legacy for the remainder of his career these ghosts of Gibson's past somewhat work in the actor’s favor here as his public persona and very public meltdowns inform this version of a Santa Claus that has lost his influence and become little more than a joke to people. Hell, the role may have even been written with Gibson in mind as the screenplay is one-thousand percent banking on the idea the audience will get a good chuckle out of the idea Gibson is playing Santa, a man whose whole deal is that he's completely altruistic in nature. There is no better way to appeal to the masses or earn back some gratitude than by taking the piss out of yourself and Gibson fully commits to doing so here. No, there isn't much more to the movie than this idea of a tongue in cheek take on the most innocent and well-meaning of holidays via a genre of movie that couldn't be more the opposite, but given Gibson's commitment to the bit, the Nelms' ability to manage a tone that's over the top without crossing the threshold from absurdity to stupidity, and the sheer presence that is Walton Goggins, “Fatman” turns out to be an amusing romp if not an immediate staple of the Christmas season.
Now, if that first paragraph made you take more than a couple passes simply because of the confusion around whether you were understanding correctly what you were reading then please know that every word was typed with the most sincere of intentions and a huge side of delight. First and foremost, going into “Fatman” one should know it is a dark comedy that plays everything straight and extremely serious which was absolutely the right choice as the film was only ever going to work if it was able to successfully convince the audience it was a legitimate action movie. So, does a movie called "Fatman" feel like a genuine action thriller with well-choreographed fights and big action set pieces even though our protagonist, our hero is supposed to be a man whose belly resembles a bowl full of jelly? Yes and no. “Fatman,” as executive produced by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride, certainly feels as if it skews to the cheaper side of things in several instances, but not necessarily where one might expect in departments like set design, lighting, or sound. Rather, it is the writing that feels most reductive as the film's appearance and more impressively - its sound design - capture the feeling of what the Nelms' are attempting to imitate pretty accurately. Within the screenplay though, these imitations feel more trite than they do biting or especially sharp as it's one thing to fit in among a desired set of peers, but infiltrating in order to expose is an entirely different ballgame and while it's clear “Fatman” wants to retain the aesthetic of a self-serious action flick it's also clear it doesn't want to actually become just another "old man action movie" either. In order to do this, the sibling writing and directing duo put in the work to try and turn each preconceived notion of Santa Claus on its head for the purposes of their tone while lacing it with comedy, but many of the examples of this don't function at the level being aspired to and more often than not the film falls into a routine where it forgets the overall joke that everything taking place is supposed to be in service of. For instance, the primary subplot of the film concerns the U.S. military procuring Santa’s services and in response to the military taking over the workshop Gibson’s version of Santa should have been walking around addressing the soldiers as if he still thought of them as children, knowing all their names, and recalling certain gifts he enjoyed delivering to them, but while the film does acknowledge the possibility of this and Santa’s ability to do so it never follows through on any of it - not even with a joke, never mind a plot point. Of course, the way Gibson goes for a cookie any time Mrs. Cringle (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) brings a plate around almost makes up for this.
It isn't that the Brothers Nelms don't know how to best service their exceptional premise or even that they waste too much of an opportunity here, but more it's that they can't seem to fully crack the formula that would push not only the premise, but the final product as a whole into the realm of exception. This begins with the editing or more specifically, the structuring of the film as it quickly becomes apparent the Nelms' know what they have, but don't know how to present it in the most effective manner. In the opening sequence of the film we are introduced to Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), a precocious twelve year-old from a wealthy family whose parents suspect their money will be a fine substitute for their time. Billy is left to occupy himself with science projects while ensuring the help takes good care of his grandmother. The stature of the Wenan estate doesn’t really match the scale of the power and influence they seem to wield, but let's just go with the fact there is enough power and influence here for said twelve year-old to hire a professional hitman for the purposes of kidnapping his science fair competition. The Billy character is key, this is understood given he's the catalyst for the majority of the action, but he shouldn't have been the character to open the film. When you have a film titled "Fatman" and are taking one of the most recognizable people on the planet and making them less recognizable by running them through the filter of a certain genre of filmmaking it would seem the obvious choice is to immediately establish who this version of the character is and how they're different from anything audiences have ever seen before. Instead, “Fatman” opens by outlining Billy's current circumstances rather than indoctrinating viewers to the hardships Chris Cringle is presently dealing with and the lengths he's going to have to go to in order to not only save his operation, but hopefully prove that he still stands for something; that he's still capable of making a difference. The introduction scene featuring Goggins' character would have sufficed as well as it at least would have better set the tone for the film moving forward, but by introducing us to the third most important character first who then leads viewers into a rather anticlimactic title screen it does nothing but relay the sense something is already off; that those holding the reins know where they want to go, but don't have complete control of the reindeer. It's obviously unfair to hold Hurstfield to the same level as his co-stars as both Gibson and Goggins have more experience than the young actor, but are also playing into the more somber, weighty perception the film intends to portray while Billy is the most theatrical of the trio. Billy is present to prop up the main conflict rather than actually influence any of it which is why the fact we meet him first just doesn't jive. Fortunately, while the film’s first step might have been a little wobbly it eventually, thankfully mostly finds its footing.
“Well, I will kill ol’ Jojo Beans too,” is a line of dialogue among many that Goggins rolls out with his signature droll and delivers with such go for broke grimness that it's impossible not to laugh. Were it not for the way Gibson somehow manages to counterbalance the long-faced exhaustion his Santa Claus feels with a genuine sense of earnestness that is underlined with a tinge of comedy then Goggins would easily walk away with this movie. Never referred to by name, Goggins' character is simply known as the "Skinny Man" and beyond being a gun for hire he also has a unique interest in Father Christmas and tracking down the whereabouts of his workshop after feeling neglected by Jolly ol' Saint Nick when he was a boy. Just picture Judge Reinhold's therapist character from “The Santa Clause” and imagine that guy going in the complete opposite direction with his childhood Christmas trauma and you have Goggins' character here. It is through both his character and performance that the aforementioned "side of delight" really comes into play for as much as the idea of Santa being a grizzled Canadian who is having a tough time dealing with the depreciating level of reverence toward his generosity and is forced to partner with the U.S. military so that his elves can help build weapons in order to continue properly funding his Christmas operation is appealing and enough of a movie on its own the added layer of Gibson's Chris being locked in a deadly battle against a highly skilled assassin who was hired by a child after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking is the *chef's kiss* on an already ridiculous affair.
Could “Fatman” have been a little more over-the-top with both its gore and humor if it was always going to be rated R? Sure. Could the script have utilized more of the happy, joyous, and downright sugary aspects of Christmas and turned them on their head to sport more creative flourishes and more than a few good laughs? Definitely. “Fatman” was bound to be a film of "what ifs" though as the sheer concept of Santa via Todd Phillips' “Joker” opens up boundless possibilities to the point all of them would never fit into a coherent film, but with the seemingly limited budget and time the Brothers Nelms had in order to realize this vision what they ultimately deliver is a solid slice of some of those possibilities. The toughest part of something like “Fatman” was never going to be crafting a coherent story - the options are pretty clear cut in regards to how they could pushing the narrative envelope with said concept - but it was going to be mastering tone that proved trickiest. Nevertheless, Eshom and Ian Nelms with a lot of help from their game cast somehow manage to make this literal war on Christmas much better than it probably has any right to be by offsetting the darkness with enough comedy and the cynicism with enough Jean-Baptiste to the point one can't help but to be bowled over not by the man who's making a list and checking it twice, but by his dry-witted assassin and the hardened, leather-skinned Santa at the center who most definitely smokes at least six packs a day.