There’s an interesting idea for a movie in “Fatman,” which seeks to spin a bleak and wintry hitman tale into a deadpan dark Christmas comedy by making Santa Claus the target of that hired killer. It never makes it past the idea stage, unfortunately, since mixing these disparate genres together would require an absolute mastery of tone that the film can’t quite muster.
Writers-directors Ian Nelms and Eshom Nelms (“Small Town Crime”) certainly can’t be faulted for ambition, but their big idea doesn’t make it all the way down the chimney.
Despicable rich child Billy (Chance Hurstfield, “A Million Little Things”) already has a working relationship with the assassin known as the Skinny Man (Walton Goggins), having recently hired him to kidnap a classmate to force her to give Billy a science-fair prize he thought was rightfully his. When Billy’s wicked ways earn him coal from Santa Claus (Mel Gibson), the kid commissions the Skinny Man — who has his own grudge against the fat man — to take out Father Christmas, who is presented here as anything but a right jolly old elf. (He’s not even particularly fat, although he’s what the kids would call “thicc.”)
Times are hard for Santa: With so many kids misbehaving, he is delivering fewer presents, which, in turn, cuts into the subsidy he gets from the U.S. government. To break even this year, he has to bring the elves back to work on a military contract, while the Skinny Man stalks his prey all the way to his home base in Alaska, where a bloody confrontation is bound to ensue.
“Fatman,” on paper, seeks to channel the existential action movies of the New Hollywood — think “Point Blank” or “Prime Cut” — only set in a world where Santa Claus exists. At the same time, it seeks to make Santa make sense in that world by presenting him and his wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), not to mention the elves, as hard-working, blue-collar people with as little twinkle or magic as possible.
Again, these are interesting, provocative concepts, particularly in the world of the Christmas movie, but the goals of “Fatman” exceed its grasp; it wants to be funny but also grim but also realistic but also about Santa Claus. Had the film moved a few degrees in either direction, upping the dark humor or concentrating more on minimalist despair and brutal action, the Nelms brothers might have been onto something.
Even as it falls short of its goals, there are discrete pleasures here. Goggins comes closest to figuring out the movie’s tone, giving us a ruthless killer who is still clearly driven by childhood resentments, displaying utter sociopathy to his fellow human beings but doting on his beloved hamster. The ever-reliable Jean-Baptiste brings coziness, pragmatism and sexuality to Santa’s wife, probably a first in the holiday genre. And if Gibson is going to age into a grizzled screen presence, better that he do so in R-rated vehicles like this one rather than family fare like “Daddy’s Home 2,” where his character’s reactionary misanthropy and misogyny is supposed to be considered adorable.
There’s a consistent vision for this version of Santa Claus throughout, from the icy spareness of Johnny Derango’s cinematography to Jennifer Stroud’s costume design, which sees Chris Cringle as a flannel-shirt-and-jeans guy rather than someone in a fur-trimmed red suit. The score by Mondo Boys bypasses the film’s attempts at bleak humor and functions solidly in action-movie mode, but it does so effectively.
“Fatman” isn’t a lump of coal by any means. Think of it as an elaborate toy that shows up disassembled and without any instructions. At least the pieces are nice.