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'Fatman': Film Review

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Mel Gibson plays a new kind of Saint Nick in a holiday action film by brothers Ian and Eshom Nelms.

In Fatman, the latest film by brothers Ian and Eshom Nelms, Santa Claus is a gruff, defeated man with a drinking problem. Persecuted by those he wants to bring joy to, he at one point suffers a wound in his side, Jesus-style. When we meet him, he's venting some anger by shooting tin cans in his back yard. If any Christmas picture screams out for today's Mel Gibson, this is the one.

Yet despite this casting and the increasingly head-spinning plot โ€” the U.S. government hires Santa's workforce to make parts for fighter jets; a rich kid who gets coal under the tree hires a hitman to punish the once-jolly gift-giver โ€” Fatman doesn't elicit the response one rightly expects, the mouth-agape astonishment of wondering how and why such a movie came to exist. The film realizes it's being outrageous, but it's not one of those prefab cult movies that cynically throws one absurdity after another onscreen in the hopes of going viral. Heaven help them, the Nelms brothers actually care about this story, and they hope you will too. If you're the kind of viewer who isn't too put off by the resonances between Gibson's screen persona and his offscreen behavior, you just might. (Which will be lucky since, nutty premise notwithstanding, the movie rarely tries to make you laugh.)

This Chris Cringle's despondency comes from the lousy state of the world's children. As he sees it, the Naughty population is ever-growing, while the number of kids who deserve the gifts they wish for decreases by the day. Unfortunately, the money his operation brings in โ€”ย a subsidy check from the U.S. government โ€”ย is proportionate not to his costs, but to the number of presents he delivers. (While some parts of this conceit may not hold up to scrutiny, the basic gist makes sense: In paying a little to keep Santa's generosity going, the government props up the gargantuan economy around Christmas-spirit consumerism.)

As a result, Santa's workshop is behind on its bills and at risk of closing down. Things are so desperate he's finally willing to sign a contract with the Army, militarizing his North Pole compound in the downtime between bouts of present-making. Elves are highly skilled, after all, despite their all-sweets diet. It's a sad scene, and if not for the calming influence of his wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), Mr. Cringle might crack. (Santa's wife gets more attention here than in most Christmas pictures, and scenes between the two would be credible even in a more serious movie.)

Meanwhile, spoiled Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield) rules over his family's mansion while a neglectful father vacations around the world with one girlfriend or another. He's a little tyrant with an amusingly grown-up demeanor, treating maids like his secretaries and taking a cutthroat approach to competition at the Science Fair.

Outraged at the coal he receives Christmas morning, Billy contacts a hitman credited as the Skinny Man (Walton Goggins). The oddly sentimental killer has spent his life hating Santa for not giving him the gifts he wanted decades ago. He eagerly agrees to find his North Pole lair and kill him.

As played by Goggins, this figure is Fatman's most successful invention, a just-novel-enough spin on earlier Yuletide heavies whose villainy derives from childhood suffering. He stalks his prey with quirky menace. But do yourself a favor and don't wait for this Grinch to be redeemed.

As it moves toward a climax that will require Santa to connect with his inner action hero, the film works better than it should without being as enjoyable as its predecessor, the brothers' much less ambitious Small Town Crime. In that 2017 private-eye pic starring John Hawkes, seedy vibes came with the territory, and a single genre was enough to keep the writer/directors engaged. Here, viewers must keep asking themselves how many layers of irony they're looking through, and how many varieties of Christmas movies the world really needs.

Production company: Mammoth Entertainment
Distributor: Saban Films (In select theaters Nov. 13; On Demand and on digital Nov. 24)
Cast: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chance Hurstfield, Susanne Sutchy, Robert Bockstael, Michael Dyson, Deborah Grover, Ellison Butler, Eric Woolfe
Directors-Screenwriters: Ian Nelms & Eshom Nelms
Producers: Nadine De Barros, Michelle Lang, Todd Courtney, Lisa Wolofsky, Robert Menzies
Director of photography: Johnny Derango
Production designer: Chris August
Costume designer: Jennifer Stroud
Editor: Traton Lee
Composers: Mondo Boys
Casting directors: Chelsea Ellis Bloch, Marisol Roncali, Ilona Smyth

R, 100 minutes

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