As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Fatman. You’ve been warned.
Of all the roles an actor can play, I think the role of Santa Claus is probably one of the hardest to pull off. I’m serious. It may seem easy on the surface – just an old, fat (oh, sorry – I suppose those words might offend. We’ll just say mature and weight-challenged) guy with white hair, a white beard, a red suit and a jolly laugh. I mean, lots of ordinary guys play Santa every year at the local mall, right? True, but in order to make people really believe in the character, there’s a certain something that the actor needs to have. What exactly that something is, is difficult to put into words – but you know it when you see it. And of all the actors in the world, Mel Gibson is probably one of the last people I ever would have imagined agreeing to take on the role – but in Fatman, that’s exactly what he does, and I gotta say, he’s pretty friggin’ awesome.
So our story begins with young Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), a 12-year old who looks and acts more like a junior version of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Instead of band or sports posters on his wall, he has a portrait of Napoleon and he wears all of his “Best of Show” blue ribbons on his suit jacket. Billy writes a letter to Santa (which he seems a little old for and his handwriting looks like a 4-year old’s, but okay) and shouts for one of his servants to mail it for him. He also radios out an order to have his science fair project brought out and loaded up into his chauffeur-driven car.
His ailing, wheelchair-bound grandmother (Deborah Grover) emerges from her room and tells him that his father won’t be joining them for Christmas. Billy takes the news in disturbingly emotionless stride as she then tells him to go out there and “win another one.” Billy agrees, saying, “That’s what winners do.” So, the takeaway – Billy is one rich, messed-up kid from a rich, messed-up family.
Meanwhile, at some undisclosed wintry locale, Chris Cringle (Mel Gibson) does some target shooting, plinking away at all kinds of cans and cookie tins featuring cartoony Santa images. Mrs. Cringle, known as Ruth (the incredible Marianne Jean-Baptiste), approaches her salty hubby and they have a short conversation about the state of the business known as Christmas. They’re in a terrible slump and bills are coming due. Chris assures Ruth that the subsidy check from the government should be in the mailbox when he goes to pick it up.
Back in the bustling city, a guy named Donald (Sean Tucker) arrives at a cold-looking office to meet up with a mysterious dude known only as Skinny Man (the awesome Walton Goggins). Donald presents him with a baseball bat, which Skinny Man examines like it was a delicate antique, gloves and all. Skinny Man finds the “Made in Santa’s Workshop” label and digs around it to make sure it’s not fake. Donald wants $2000 for it but Skinny Man says he’ll give him $900. He can take it or f**k off. And by his looks and his vibe, Donald had better take it. Skinny Man then adds the bat to his collection of carefully kept, plastic-wrapped toys.
At the school science fair, Billy’s showing off his elaborate model of hydroelectric power – but then he sees another student, a very nice girl named Christine (Ellison Butler) getting the “Best in Show” ribbon. Billy checks his table and sees that he’s gotten the ugly, red “Runner-Up” bow. He tries to protest to the teachers, but they just shove him into a publicity photo with Christine. When his driver comes to pick him up, Billy throws a fit and tells the driver that he has another job for their mutual friend. And that night, as Skinny Man attends to his job as a hitman, he gets the call from Billy and accepts.
Meanwhile, as Chris drives into town munching on cookies and milk, he listens to the news and hears the announcer talking about whether Santa and Christmas are relevant anymore since kids these days don’t take it seriously. A bunch of kids threw a bowling ball off an overpass, causing a 30-car pileup just for fun. Another bunch of brats burned someone’s house down. This just worsens Chris’ already bad mood as he goes to the post office and picks up the crates of mail – and their subsidy check.
Chris stops at the bar for a shot of whiskey to dull the pain of what he fears he’ll find in the subsidy check envelope. While he’s sitting there, he watches the bartender, Sandy (Susanne Sutchy) having a suggestive conversation with a trucker (Mike Tokatlidis). When she steps away, Chris moves in on the guy and creeps him out with what he knows about him. Remember, this is Santa we’re talking about – he knows everything about everybody. And with the trucker guy, it’s that he’s married with kids. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll get gone back to his family. After the trucker scampers off, Chris pops an Alka-Seltzer into his whiskey and opens up the check. By his expression, we see it’s not good news.
Back at Skinny Man’s extremely OCD-looking apartment, he’s on the phone getting contact info for science fair winner Christine. And at Billy’s, the budding sociopath brings a snack to his grandmother, but not out of kindness. Nope, he just needs to steal some of her checks, which he forges and uses to pay Skinny Man, who’s waiting in the basement with Christine. Billy scares the cr*p out of her with a car battery and a rod, threatening her with gruesome, electric death if she doesn’t return the first-place ribbon and say she cheated.
Chris arrives back at home to find some government people waiting to talk to him and Ruth. They argue about the subsidy check, which was only half of what they need to keep the workshop running. The government people say the check is based on the volume of gifts produced – but Chris refuses to hand out “participation trophies” for the many kids who don’t deserve gifts.
The government guys have a proposal though – they want to hire Chris’ workshop for a military contract. Chris talks it over with Ruth and she suggests that perhaps he try checking for work elsewhere. So Chris gets on the phone and calls everybody he can think of – including Elon Musk – to see if he can get work. But he comes back to Ruth with the bad news – he bid on everything from “mainframes to Pez dispensers,” but everything’s outsourced and underbid. To make matters worse, it’s Christmas Eve and time for Chris to head out on the long delivery run. When he returns home in the early morning, Chris is sporting an ugly, bloody wound from some kids who took a shot at the sleigh with a deer rifle. Nice. An exhausted Chris cleans up the mess and crawls into bed with Ruth.
Meanwhile, Billy comes downstairs to find Santa’s been there. He grabs the gift with his name on it and tears it open – only to find a big old lump of coal, which he so richly deserves. But this infuriates the young devil spawn and he runs outside to scream to the heavens that he’ll get the fat man. Then he calls up Skinny Man, who’s spending his holiday on the shooting range. Billy lays it out for him – he wants to hire him to kill Santa. And Skinny Man, obviously having a deep-seated beef with the big guy given his odd toy collection, is happy to accept the job.
Back at the Cringles’, Chris gets on the phone and reluctantly accepts the government contract. He talks with Ruth, saying he thinks it’s time to retire. He no longer has any influence on kids or adults. Ruth says that he’s an icon, that people love him – but Chris holds up a piece of wrapping paper with another cartoony Santa image and says, “That’s what people really think of me.” Ruth says he just needs a break, but Chris is on a tear, saying Christmas is a farce and a business they’re about to lose, even though it generates billions of dollars for the US economy alone. Nobody cares about Christmas anymore, much less understands what it’s really about.
Meanwhile, Skinny Man isn’t having much luck finding a location for Chris, as one might expect. It nearly drives him crazy until he realizes that the only way to find him is to track all the letters he gets. So Skinny Man finds some nice, poor mail delivery guy and kills him to get his uniform and truck. Then he goes to the main office and holds the postmaster at gunpoint until he gives up the info – but all he has is a PO box and a city. All other information about Santa is classified. Skinny Man rewards the postmaster with two gunshots and then packs up his gear and heads north.
At the workshop, Chris gives the elves the news that they’ll be working with the military to cover their budget shortfall. A dejected Chris can barely get the words out, explaining that so many kids these days are “making poor decisions.” And he wouldn’t have accepted the deal had there been any other way. Then Chris hands the floor over to Captain Jacobs (Robert Bockstael), who lays out the new security protocols. All the elves will be fingerprinted, given ID badges – and they’ll have to give up the jingle bells on their boots as they’ll set off the metal detectors. Aww. That sucks.
Chris hates the whole deal but the elves, led by his stalwart foreman Seven (Eric Woolfe), take it in stride and impress Capt. Jacobs with their work. A couple of other government execs visit the workshop and talk to Chris while he’s feeding the reindeer. They jabber on about making the contract a yearly gig, which would save Chris financially – but he insists it’s a one-time deal. (Cool easter egg here – one of the reindeer bites one of the suits and Chris says it’s Donner, “who gets a mite nippy.” And that’s Donner as in longtime colleague Richard Donner, director of all the Lethal Weapon movies.)
While taking out his frustrations on a punching bag, Ruth leaves Chris a little pep talk in the form of some letters and photos they’ve received from grown-ups who were inspired by the gifts he brought them as kids. Like a woman who became a firefighter after Chris gave her a fire truck as a little girl, and a man who became a chef because of the play kitchen Chris gave him. It chokes him up, and makes him remember why he does what he does. He goes in to see Ruth, who’s baking more cookies and he thanks her. She says they both have their good days and bad days – like when she went through her vegan, sugar-free phase. Chris shudders at the memory, recalling how he lost almost 12 pounds. Horrors. He then tries to get some quality time going with her, but she says he stinks and jokingly holds him at bay with a rolling pin. It’s so cute. I’m not kidding. They have fantastic chemistry.
Anyway, getting back to Skinny Man, who’s finally arrived in town after the long, long drive up to Alaska with his pet hamster. He goes to the post office and inquires about Chris, but postmaster Herman (Michael Dyson) has no idea where Chris actually lives. Nobody does. Because after all, that’s kinda the point. All Skinny Man manages to get out of him and bartender Sandy, when she pops in, is that Chris comes in every few days and drives a red Ford pickup. So Skinny Man heads to the local outfitter and picks up the sleekest, most expensive snow gear and some skis. Then he starts the long stakeout at the post office, waiting for Chris to show up.
Then Skinny Man gets a call from Billy (who he’s affectionately labeled “Little Sh*t” on the caller ID), asking for a sit-rep. He says he’s decided he wants a souvenir from the hit. He wants the fat man’s head. Skinny Man denies the morbid request, saying it’s not only impractical to transport a human head over such a long distance, but it’s also dangerous. So he talks Billy into accepting Santa’s famous coat instead.
The next day, a much happier Chris drives into town and Skinny Man spots him outside the post office. He follows Chris back home and goes trudging through the woods to get a look at the workshop and the Area 51-level security around the place. Definitely not what he was expecting. So he heads back to his car and packs up every weapon and device he’s got and heads back into the woods.
And I’ll say this, once this one-man siege on the workshop starts, it’s action heaven. Skinny Man moves in on the workshop, slaying everyone who crosses his path. Once inside, he starts laying bombs down – but one of the elves catches sight of him, and Skinny Man chases him onto the factory floor. He starts spraying rounds everywhere, sending everybody scrambling. Seven manages to get to the alarm and radios Chris back at the house.
Chris and Ruth dig their weapons out from under the bed and load up as Skinny Man continues to shoot everything in sight. As he emerges from the workshop, he takes out poor Capt. Jacobs and then sets off the bombs, blowing the workshop to pieces. Chris then emerges from the house and it’s time for the high-noon type showdown. Chris knows exactly who Skinny Man is, of course, calling him a “twisted child.” Skinny Man tosses a matchbox police car at him – the only gift Chris ever brought him, even after all the many times he wrote to him.
Chris apologizes, saying there are limits to what he can do, and he couldn’t replace his parents. But Skinny Man’s on the rampage now, screaming for his head. Chris just says this isn’t the first time someone’s tried to kill him and bam! The shooting starts. They each take cover and gradually move in closer to each other, both taking hits. Then they have a brutal fight where Skinny Man stabs Chris – and then in a shocking turn, Skinny Man actually does execute Chris with a shot through the eye. But then Skinny Man takes another hit courtesy of Ruth, who he chases back into the house. Ruth takes a hit too, but she’s the one who gets the last word, taking Skinny Man out with an ancient flintlock pistol. Then she runs out to Chris, who’s looking pretty friggin’ dead. The elves gather around and it’s a tense few seconds – but then Chris comes around. Because after all, he is Santa Claus. You know, magic and all that.
Back at Billy’s, the little brat overhears his grandmother on the phone with the bank. She’s found out about the forged checks and is understandably furious. Billy decides to head that problem off at the pass by poisoning Granny’s glass of milk. But before he can set his evil plan in motion, who should show up at the house but Ruth and Chris – who’s sporting a limp and a bandaged eye. But he’s very much alive and has his deadly, one-eyed stare focused on Billy.
Chris admits to a shocked and terrified Billy that everything that happened is partly his fault since he hasn’t been himself lately. But now he’s back on track and taking the “pro-active approach.” If Billy steps so much as a hair out of line, Chris says he’ll be coming for him. After all, he sees him when he’s sleeping. He knows when he’s awake. And he certainly knows if he’s been bad or good. “The Fatman’s got his eye on you,” he says – and it’s safe to say Billy’s scared straight. And then later, back at home, Ruth brings out some cookies to Seven and the elves, all busy rebuilding the workshop. Chris, sporting a bada** eyepatch, hugs Ruth and tells her they’ll be back up and running in no time, and better than ever. And they’re going to keep it that way. Aww.
Fatman is a strange, risky venture of a flick. Not only does it have the whole Christmas mythology to reckon with, but it’s also a super-dark, hard-R comedy. Both are extremely difficult to pull off on their own and putting them together makes it almost impossible to succeed. But I gotta say, I think it works. It does struggle a bit at the beginning to find its footing, but once you get the vibe of it, it really clicks. Mel’s Chris Cringle is all at once believable both as the man and the myth. Yeah, he’s crusty and moody, but you get the sense that this is what Santa would be like if he were a real guy and just as cynical and jaded as the rest of us. And the dynamic between Mel and Marianne Jean-Baptiste is awesome. I totally ship it. And Walton Goggins plays his Skinny Man simultaneously comedic and deathly, crazily serious. It’s a terrific departure for him.
So while I don’t think I’d go so far as to put Fatman in the same category as Die Hard, I think it should definitely join the ranks of classic holiday flicks for grown-ups. Give the flick a chance – don’t turn it off after the first few minutes just because it’s a little weird. I promise you, your patience will be rewarded. It’s so much fun – and by the end, you’ll be surprisingly full of holiday cheer.
Written and Directed By: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Release Date: Nov. 24, 2020
Run Time: 1 hr 40 min
Distributor: Saban Films
In theaters and streaming on FandangoNOW