If you think you’ll like “Fatman”—in which Mel Gibson stars as Santa Claus facing down a hitman—you’ll like “Fatman.” And if you aren’t so sure, you still might like it.
In these plague-ridden times, it is available both in theaters and streaming, so I watched it as God intended, with a buddy over for beer and pizza. There was a wreath on the door, lights twinkling outside, presents under (or at least in the vicinity of) the tree, and our small audience expecting a goofy Christmas action comedy. We got something better.
“Fatman” is a good film. Based on the premise, the trailer, and the R rating for violence and language, I expected a holiday shoot-‘em-up of the standard hour-and-a-half of quips, gunplay, and high explosive hijinks.
Instead, Fatman’s writer and director duo of Ian and Eshom Nelms took their time in getting to the action, developing the characters, and offering bits of humor and heart along the way, including some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. The ridiculous premise works as more than a gag because they put real people inside of it.
In this film, no one is more real than Santa. His problems long predate the appearance of a hired killer at his workshop, and the demon-haunted Gibson is perfect as a gruff, worn-down curmudgeon of a Chris Cringle trying to keep his operation afloat by doing contract work for the Pentagon. Most actors would have made the role a caricature, but Gibson made it real.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste starts quietly in her role as his wife, but she is stealing the show by the end. And Walton Goggins is excellent as the assassin sent by a precocious brat to put the fat man on ice. Each of these characters is able to surprise viewers.
This unexpectedness includes the villains, who are thoroughly wicked, but who are also given moments that show us the pain that propelled them down the paths of evil. The bad guys are made understandable, but without being excused.
This character development is possible because there is not much superfluous flesh on “Fatman.” What is in there is in there for a reason. The filmmakers keep things moving—even a villain montage manages to develop the character, and the call-outs to genre tropes stay brisk.
A few parts of the film did not work as well as the rest. We see enough of the elves to realize they are not what we expect, and to make us have surprising respect for them, but they are still a bit underdeveloped as characters. The representatives of the U.S. military are even more prone to being plot devices than developed as characters.
Nonetheless, “Fatman” is a surprisingly complete movie, with characters, settings, and dialogue that make a surreal plot into something real. Consequently, it is more reflective than would be expected. Good characters can always make an audience think.
It might be too much to call “Fatman” a meditation on God and government, but the material is there. The government, including the military brass who want elves manufacturing parts for fighter jets, does a poor job of protecting anyone, even themselves, from the forces of evil.
In the end, the government is little more than a money spigot, good for a check in the mail. Santa has to get his hands dirty to protect himself, and to mete out justice. There will be blood on the snow.
Meanwhile, God is absent from the world of “Fatman,” other than a cross in the home of early and unnamed targets of the assassin. Instead of God, we get a god, with Chris Cringle offering lesser forms of divine reward and retribution—toys and coal rather than heaven and hell.
But this is not a feel-good holiday film content to reduce wickedness to naughtiness that deserves nothing worse than the disappointment of coal on Christmas morning. Evil is real, and Santa knows it as well as anyone. He fears that his carrots and sticks are insufficient to direct the young toward the good. Kids these days, indeed.
In this world, God and the government can’t save you. The Fatman might, if he can save himself, but some people are still beyond his reach, if not his wrath. This is, in that sense, a film set in a very pagan world. With just Santa, it is not really Christmas.