In “Fatman,” Mel Gibson plays Santa Claus on steroids. He actually does say that he’s on steroids at one point, but I mean it as more of an attitude thing. This Santa spends the better part of his days drinking, smoking cigars, and working out – chopping firewood and beating the stuffing out of punching bags. It’s not that he doesn’t have a nice-guy side: he has a loving relationship with his wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, in probably the best-ever portrayal of Mrs. Claus), he cares deeply about the elves in his employ, and he recognizes his role as an inspiration to millions of children. But he’s not so jolly. The world is turning naughtier and the U.S. government is threatening to cut back on his subsidies if he doesn’t have the elves build things like fighter jets. Without ever saying it, he’s on the verge of a violent outburst. Violence comes a-calling, and although he wants to end things efficiently for the protection of his loved ones, you get the sense that he’s been looking forward to this excuse to let out some hostility out of his system.
That violence comes in the form of Jonathan (Walton Goggins), a hitman hired by the spoiled Billy (Chance Hurstfield). Billy is a little psychopath, stealing money from his sick grandmother and having a student who beats him in a science fair kidnapped and tortured. These misdeeds earn him a box of coal for Christmas, and he swears a vendetta against Santa. Jonathan also has a vendetta against Santa for never giving him what he wanted as a child. For decades he’s considered his Santa-hatred a mere hobby, but now that he’s being assigned to track him down, he can do so with all his heart. Jonathan is both a great and a lousy hitman. He can sneak into a house and kill people while they’re sleeping without waking them up, but he can’t locate someone that gets million of letters from the post office every year. Just mail the guy a tracking device, don’t waste your time with a blood-soaked series of interrogations.
The key to a movie like this is its sense of humor, but things are mostly played straight. Playing a situation like Santa Claus facing off against a hitman straight can itself be funny because the premise is so ridiculous that the seriousness works in contrast, but I say the movie relies a little too much on humor derived from the setup and the setup alone. But at least the movie doesn’t rely on lazy drunken/lustful/mean Santa jokes that lowbrow comedies love to exploit, despite scenes of Santa drinking, making love, and getting angry. Those seem so true to the character that they aren’t ironic.
I was disappointed with the action in the film, which mostly involves shooting, much of it long-distance. Santa has such a unique set of skills and resources, can’t we see him in an axe fight or throwing boiling cocoa in somebody’s face? I’m not exactly saying I want more violence in this Santa Claus movie, just more creativity.
“Fatman” spends more time than it should on the government contract storyline, which isn’t that interesting and is rendered moot by the end of the movie anyway. More interesting (thanks largely to the Jean-Baptiste performance) is the arc of Santa losing and regaining his passion for his work, but that isn’t the selling point of the movie. We’re here for the crusty Santa in a battle to the death with the hitman, and while I can’t say that the movie fails to deliver in this area, the confrontation leaves something to be desired. I will say that a later confrontation with evil employer Billy is handled much better. If you want a “different” take on Santa, “Fatman” is a good choice, but it never quite lives up to its potential as a “Santa takes care of business” movie.
“Fatman” available On Demand through streaming services and likely through your local cable provider. The film is rated R for bloody violence and language. Its running time is 100 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.