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Call this low-hanging fruit, but someone could take their choice of any of the nearly-90-year-old verses and lyrics from “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” written by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots and make a spot-on, tongue-in-cheek joke fit for the ridonkulous new movie Fatman starring Mel Gibson as a strapped Santa. Envisioning a gun barrel to some poor soul’s head, going with “You better watch out/You better not cry” or “He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice” are too easy. The proper dare would be if the movie could ring sleigh bells to answer the challenge of “so be good for goodness sake.”
Somewhere, the next jingle of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” comes around. You know what? I hear you. How can Fatman remotely be good? You watch that grim trailer that looks like something intentionally fake right out of Saturday Night Live’s penchant for such parody and shake your head. You consider the violent premise and think Fatman is going to all be schlocky pulp. And then, what to my wondering eyes did appear, this flick turned into something wholly unexpected, yet still with the meaty side of the lurid. Ring those f’n sleigh bells!
A devious Richie Rich named Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield of A Million Little Things) gets a lump of coal wrapped up under his tree for Christmas and snaps. The same kid who was willing to torture and threaten harm to a school classmate for finishing ahead of him at the science fair is the type of spoiled brat with financial clout to have a contract killer on speed dial. That unnamed assassin wrapped black and armed with a silenced pistol is, believe it or not, a hamster guy of all people, played by professional movie villain Walton Goggins.
For years, this slim spook has been collecting the once-cherished gifts of others blazened with the brass badge of Santa’s Workshop. He has a beef of his own with Saint Nick as tough as a shoe-leather steak. Firing up his beastly Plymouth, he arms himself to the teeth with his rodent in tow for a road trip to the frosty north (filmed entirely in Ontario) to collect high-paying revenge.
The Old Man Christmas (Gibson) he seeks faces dwindling public belief in the pillar holiday ideals and feels like a failure. We are introduced to “Chris Cringle” in Carhartt with a rusty red Ford pickup truck, taking target practice on cookie tins and cans bearing his cartoonish commercial image, much to his growling disdain. A slump of worthy good kids and outsourced modern gifts greater than his house brand have made for a lean year of cheer and cheddar where little encouragement from his wife Ruth (TV vet Marianne Jean-Baptiste, in a wonderfully pleasant spot) can lift his once-indomitable optimism. His spirit is as lost as his influence.
Visiting suits try to tell Chris that “holiday cheer generates holiday spending.” He fully knows the trillions his efforts stir as the largest economic stimulus on the planet without a penny in return. However, Santa’s got a workforce of mouths to feed. It’s gotten so bad that Chris accepts a lucrative contract offer from the United States military to enlist his efficient and now-clandestine elves to build control panels for fighter jets. It sounds like we need to leave the big guy more than milk and cookies when he visits. Float the pudgy senior a few bucks.
The brother writing/directing team of Eshom and Ian Helms (Small Town Crime, Waffle Street) plot this impending showdown with dry style and frank originality. The pulsing score of the Mondo Boys overwhelms the holiday standards with edgy doom. Tight editing keeps things moving towards the blood-spilling finale on our wish list. Crappier effort would be slapping a Santa hat on your big-name star and saying riff away while stuff blows up behind him every five seconds. That is not so with the mounting rage with Fatman. The burn here is nice and slow.
Better than the burn is the underlying bravado. Not unlike the grizzled and expectation-shattering Sam Elliott vehicle The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot a few years ago, Fatman builds out-of-nowhere pathos for manipulating myths. Its love-over-loathing core becomes a B-movie dissertation on spirit that is something surprisingly meaningful. Once again, who saw this coming?
Don’t f–k with Santa Claus, especially one that looks and sounds like Mel Gibson. Do you think this fabled figure is merely fat and slow? Come on, dude. This immortal demi-god lives in arctic conditions, runs an entire manufacturing industry, and works his ass off to dodge crosshairs and conspiracies to bring joy to billions without a trackable trace. To boot, he knows the honesty and lies of everyone in the world, is a crack shot, and boasts a little Herculean strength. You, Walton Goggins, who got your spine ripped out by Predator, think you can take him solo with some assault rifles, jiu-jitsu, and a grudge? You might as well freeze your tongue to an icy pole.
This is where it all circles back to the aforementioned low-hanging fruit song lyrics in a fitting way. The comeuppance for Goggins and Hurstfield’s nefarious characters is pure “You better watch out/You better not cry” territory. They deserve the consequences of their actions. Someone out there needs to sound like a strict school teacher to tell the misbehaving kids of this world receiving their duly-earned combustible sedimentary rock that “you get what you get and don’t throw a fit.” Why not that person be Jolly Old Saint Nick, who could double for the Angel of Death? Go ahead and teach those lessons, Fatman.
Underneath all the manufactured theatrics, that burly shock of gray-white hair, and stout beard and ‘stache is the two-time Oscar-winning screwloose. Man, does Mel Gibson still have screen presence with those blue eyes and snarling voice! His current indie stretch demonstrates that he has been unafraid to remind us of that power with devil-may-care bravery to take both silly and stimulating chances. Fatman is one of those. In lesser hands, this would be a complete farce and disaster, but Gibson sells snow to an Eskimo in dealing out the guts and gravitas.