With their new film 'Fatman', directors Eshom and Ian Nelms have pulled off an interesting, frustrating bait-and-switch, employing elements of a crazy would-be cult movie in service of what's really, at heart, a sober personal melodrama. The gambit doesn't really work, but it's hard not to respect their attempt to do something different in time for Christmas.
Wealthy brat Billy (Chance Hurstfield, 'Good Boys') hires an assassin known as the Skinny Man (Walton Goggins, 'Ant-Man and the Wasp', 'Tomb Raider') to menace a classmate who won a science fair prize that Billy thought was rightfully his. When Billy's nasty shenanigans earn him a lump of coal from Santa Claus (Mel Gibson, 'Hacksaw Ridge'), the sociopathic sprog tasks the Skinny Man - who is nursing his own Yuletide grudge - to track down Father Christmas, who is anything but jolly.
It's a plot that may have been beamed in from the same bizarro dimension as Don Coscarelli's quietly cherishable 2002 romp 'Bubba Ho-Tep', in which a nursing-home Elvis and a black JFK teamed up to see off a rampaging Egyptian mummy, or Robert D. Krzykowski's self-explanatory 'The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot'.
At first, 'Fatman' looks like a vehicle for Mel Gibson to kick some righteous arse, with the audience being introduced to a relatively-svelte Chris Cringle as he shoots a pistol at some bottles and cans perched on the fence surrounding his Alaskan farmhouse. "You think I got this job because I'm fat and jolly?", he rasps. Unfortunately, he also spends a lot of time griping over his economic circumstances: 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, making parts for fighter jets. Santa and his wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, 'Peter Rabbit', 'In Fabric') - not to mention the elves - are presented as hard-working, blue-collar people. Chris does, however, have the ability to recall someone's entire history by looking at them and has a 'Logan'-style healing factor.
Neither part of the film, the hunt nor the Ken Loach-esque drama in Alaska, proves satisfying. The comedy isn't sharp, and the shoot-'em-up action scenes lack verve and imagination.
Without ever seeming to strain, Gibson sketches out the lifetime's worth of regrets which weigh on this character's mind; he crafts an easy bond with Jean-Baptiste, summons barely concealed disgust for Goggins when the assassin shows up with an assault rifle and a bone to pick; and more generally plays the hokum required to keep this story moving with the exact same conviction as he did in, say, 'Dragged Across Concrete'. Like Wyatt Earp or Jesse James, Santa has lived long enough to see his checkered past transformed into tall tales; in another smart link to Western tradition, he's confronted by the Skinny Man with a toy car, just like Henry Fonda is presented with Charles Bronson's harmonica in Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West'.
Sadly, that makes 'Fatman' sound more compelling (at least to those who enjoy having their expectations upturned) than it actually is. Neither part of the film, the hunt nor the Ken Loach-esque drama in Alaska, proves satisfying. The comedy isn't sharp, and the shoot-'em-up action scenes lack verve and imagination. It doesn't commit to being a camp spectacle or an introspective character piece. What the directors clearly care about is Santa's romance and his lingering heartbreak over the state of the world, but even the charm of that relationship isn't enough to adrenalise the film, which suffers from laboured pacing, with at least a couple of early sequences seeming to take forever to get to their point. They don't appear to have consistently prioritised visual or narrative dynamism, nor a single cinematic style or message when they made this film.
Eshom and Ian Nelms' offbeat ambition makes them people to keep an eye on, but their plodding execution still needs some work. 'Fatman' could have been the 'Unforgiven' of Christmas cinema, unfortunately, it feels like the product of a pair of busy but unfocused imaginations.