Imagining Santa Claus as anything more than a lighthearted, kid-friendly figurative Christmas fixture in movies goes quite the route from the latest work of directors Ian and Eshom Nelms. For this, it’s not every season that a film like Fatman comes around what with all the potboiler Holiday movies and the occassional reminder of Tim Allen in a fatsuit for that one film franchise that’s probably airing on some channel on TV or something or another.
Alas, it’s 2020 and in the post-Deadpool era, while Fatman doesn’t go the full monty with its action and violence, it certainly spills enough of it to balance out the reverence in its message and overall fun throughout its execution. It’s a film that takes the Cris Cringle you and your parents know (depending on how old you are, of course) and refurbishes him as a hefty, salt and pepper-bearded, steely-eyed version of Santa who’s tarnished image in the eyes of a capitalist society too often slipping into its own violent entropy has left him world-weary and frustrated.
He intermittently lets off the usual load of steam by working out and hitting the bag or even shooting cans off the fence with some of his small gun collection, and when he’s not confiding in darling wife, Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), and endulging in her latest batch of cookies, he’s the penultimate giver of gifts every year to good children whilst struggling to mitigate a three-trillion dollar industry a stringent federal budget. As of this year though, that budget has been halved since Santa hasn’t been making his quota, and ultimately resolves to agree to a two month military contract to help keep afloat for the season.
Inarguably though, Santa can’t help it if some children don’t deserve the reward of a Christmas gift. Such are the likes of one Billy (Chance Hurstfeld), a spoiled rich kid who lives with his ailing grandmother and is served hand and foot by maids and butlers. He’s also smart and has a chance to win another consecutive first prize at the school’s science fair – instead, he loses, and his refusal to accept the runner-up prize at a science fair compels him to have the winner kidnapped and threatened with certain bodily harm if she doesn’t rescind her prize forthwith. Billy’s expectations are soon further shortened when Christmas day arrives and he rushes to open the new giftbox under his tree, only to pull out a lump of coal. Enraged, Billy hires a skinny hitman (Walter Goggins) who shares a similar, albeit much longer-term disdain for Santa, to find and kill him.
A bit dry and tedious from time to time, Fatman does get to relish in its edgy, fantastical take on Holiday folklore doused in satire for a story that’s much ado about redemption than retribution as part of its social commentary. Gibson’s Santa is billed as a superhero in a sense – sans any archetypes that come to mind, his characterization is one with a unique intuition about everyone. Literally. From the bartender and her wayward patrons, to government lackeys in suits doing gruntwork, and yes, even his would-be killers.
Santa is also very strong, and while not exactly bulletproof, he can take a lickin’, although though it remains to be seen if he can still keep on tickin’. He does bleed. And of course, that’s where Jean-Baptiste’s Mrs. Claus comes in, among other areas of the business. She’s as much of the backbone as she needs to be at any given point in time, rightly serving a very loving relationship with a man who knows he isn’t perfect, and to boot, isn’t afraid to hold himself to account.
Hurstfeld’s Billy is a less-stabbier, albeit prepubescent grade school version of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman. He’s mild-mannered and reserved in public, and on the flip-side, he’s mean, insecure and looks down on others, and like a proper coward, has the proverbial dirty work done for him, which is particularly easier Goggins’ character, who midway in the film when talking to a kid playing with a toy airplane, partly makes it clear how his character came to be.
To say that Fatman borders on nihilism would fall way short of the mark. It definitely feels routine throughout, but it’s not too careless or tepid to the point where you’re tuning out. Rather, all the hands are played throughout the film with its underlying focus on mankind’s irresponsibility toward one another. Santa is merely part of the function in the scheme of things, and when kids aren’t good, good ole St. Nick can’t give – something to consider when pondering his age; as one character describes Santa in this story, “It’s the giving that keeps him young,”. Billy and his would-be hitman-for-hire, Skinny, are just the latest examples of just why it is Santa’s job has become a lot harder. That it comes down to an explosive and bloody gunfight at his North Pole factory is just part of the storied thrill that befits this being a Mel Gibson starrer, along with a few nutty surprises and twists.
Presented with a R-rating to acknowledgeably suit the film’s climactic bodycount in the third act, and peppered with soundtrack by the Mondo Boys whose music attribures the tone of Sergio Leone western right into the end credits, the Nelms’ manage to craft something slightly more reverent, often witty and meaningful in its execution of a Holiday fantasy neo-western thriller akin to that of Hans Petter Molland’s Kraftidioten. For good measure, it’s all topped off by another solid performance by Gibson, who I could imagine was probably anyone’s choice for a grisled, all-knowing, gun-toting take-no-shit Santa for years since the Aussie actor began ever sporting a beard.
Fatman does fall short of its hopeful superhero trajectory, but again, it’s worth paying a huge nod to the person who first asked why wouldn’t it be a cool move to cast Gibson as a gun-toting, anti-heroic Santa with certain abilities and putting him against assassins and miscreants who fell through the cracks as children. Whoever first birthed this idea deserves all the Christmas presents this year. And it’s November as you’re reading this with the film now available on digital download ahead of VOD next week, which makes it an early Christmas at that.