1988’s Scrooged is a gleefully dark and wild adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale (before it chickens out at the end), and it opens with a fake television ad for a movie called The Night the Reindeer Died. The film teases a terrorist assault on Santa’s workshop complete with automatic weapons and elves in distress, and it’s only taken thirty-two years for someone to capitalize on the idea and bring the core concept to life. Fatman is a fun, oddly endearing, and action-fueled delight.
It’s Christmastime, and three people are about to collide with violent holiday spirit. Billy (Chance Hurstfield) is a devious and spoiled rich kid with absentee parents and too much disposable cash at hand, and when things don’t go his way his first response is to bring in a professional to handle the dirty work. When he loses a school science project contest to a classmate, he hires a hitman named Jonathan Miller (Walton Goggins, credited only as Skinny Man) to abduct the girl so Billy can threaten her into admitting she cheated. And when he gets coal on Christmas morning? He hires Miller to find and kill Santa Claus (Mel Gibson).
Writers/directors Eshom Nelms & Ian Nelms create an irresistible setup with Fatman, and the film that follows manages to deliver on much of its promise. It’s a low-key and modestly budgeted action/comedy that hits some very dark beats well before the hitman and US military unleash hot lead all over Santa’s workshop. Oh, did I not mention the military presence? That’s another of the script’s entertaining twists in its look at the idea of Santa in modern times.
It seems residuals from world governments over Santa’s annual boost to GDP are declining — fewer people celebrating the magical elements of the holiday, more kids acting like little pricks, taking pot shots at Santa’s sleigh, and earning only coal beneath the tree — and Santa is in desperate need of income if he wants to keep the workshop rolling. He finds it in an offer from the US military to put his elves to work making control panels for spy aircraft, and the top secret job sees a military presence take up residence alongside the elves. It works to create not only a nicely cynical twist on the commercialization of the holiday but also to set up more fodder for the coming gunplay. The interactions between Captain Jacobs (Robert Bockstael) and the elves reveals fun observations regarding their sugary diet, sleep habits, and what it is that keeps Santa young-ish and healthy.
Goggins walks a fine line in Fatman as he manages to be both very funny and ruthlessly brutal on the road to his face off with the fat man. He threatens to off a little girl’s dog, kills USPS workers in search of Santa’s address, and doesn’t blink when downing US soldiers who stand in his way. Miller is also holding on to his own grudge with Santa as his abusive childhood turned him into a hard, vengeful man. “You never forget the smell of burning flesh and Menthols,” he tells a little boy, and Goggins sells the rage with the blackest of comedic edges.
It’s Gibson who’s the heart of the film, though, and while many will find that to be a lump of bullshit it’s unavoidably true. His exterior looks gruff and unshaven, and our introduction to him shooting cans with a pistol adds to the rough mystique, but the guy’s a softie. Dwindling Christmas spirit gets him down, but a few minutes looking through thank you cards — complete with photos showing kids with themed toys that led to adult dream careers coming true — nearly brings him to tears. There’s also the matter of Mrs. Claus (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who’s lovely, caring, and more than capable of handling herself when it comes to it. The relationship between the two is extremely affectionate, and it’s possibly the warmest of Gibson’s career. They banter, they sweet-talk each other, and there’s even some saucy teasing between the two that lands them in bed. They’re a cute couple and offer a pleasant contrast to the increasingly unhinged hitman.
The brothers Nelms keep the film grounded despite its partially magical setting. We see the sleigh and reindeer, but we never glimpse them flying. The elves are equally “real” and devoid of special effects, and the only magic that occurs on screen is portrayed with a subdued eye. Remove the Christmas element and Fatman is a solid siege film that builds to a bloody, action-heavy finale — including a workshop-place shooting that’s played serious and violent — but with it the movie is a nifty twist on the usual holiday fare complete with Christmas spirit and numerous bloody demises.
Trust your gut on this one, and if the idea intrigues (and Gibson isn’t a deal-breaker) you should add it to your holiday viewing rotation as it delivers a tale of finding a renewed enthusiasm for the holiday despite the growing darkness. “I’ve come for your head fatman!” we hear an intense Goggins say, and your embittered small heart grows three sizes that day.