By Derek Lawrence
November 16, 2020 at 07:31 PM EST
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Credit: Saban Films

If we're being honest, before I sat down to watch Fatman, I already had in mind what this story was going to look like. Hell, I even had a potential headline jotted down: "As if 2020 isn't bad enough, Mel Gibson is trying to ruin Santa for you." But if you're reading this, you've probably noticed that isn't what I went with, and that is, sadly, because the most offensive thing about Fatman is that it isn't more offensive.

Released in theaters last Friday and coming soon to VOD and digital, this mix of dark comedy and action from directors Eshom and Ian Nelms stars Gibson as the titular Fatman, usually referred to as Chris (as in Cringle) by those who know him. Santa's business is struggling and in debt, pushing him into a reluctant relationship with the U.S. military. The arrangement sounds worse than it is, as the hardworking elves are only manufacturing control panels for fighter jets (the most heinous part is that they're forced to cut the bells off their uniforms). Making matters even worse for Chris is a spoiled rich kid with psychopathic tendencies who was none too happy to find coal under his tree on Christmas morning. Young Billy (Chance Hurtsfield) seeks revenge by hiring a toy-obsessed assassin (played by the always great Walton Goggins) to take out Santa.

That's quite a pitch. We should be sold, right?

Well, first off, let's briefly discuss the problematic elephant in the room. It's been hard to keep track of where we are in the Mel Gibson controversy cycle. It would be totally understandable — and probably correct — if Gibson's involvement alone meant a "no" for anyone. The actor seemed to be largely shunned from Hollywood following instances of hate speech and a domestic violence accusation. He went from being one of the most famous actors and directors in the world to essentially being out of work. That is until he was slowly welcomed back, with respected filmmakers like Jodie Foster and Robert Rodriguez casting him in their movies, Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell trying to help him appear funny in Daddy's Home 2, and audiences and the industry showering him with acclaim (including an Oscar nod) for his directorial return Hacksaw Ridge. More recently, it's been slow going, with Gibson moving into Bruce Willis and Thomas Jane territory with movies that most of us have never heard of and essentially go straight to video-on-demand.

And that trend looked to continue with Fatman, except the concept is hard to ignore. Even I perked up when I saw EW debut the trailer with the headline "See Mel Gibson as angry, violent Santa Claus." There wasn't a world where I felt this would be a legitimate good movie, but as a fan of good bad movies, I saw the potential. I wanted Tax Collector bad;  I wanted Last Christmas bad. Unfortunately, we weren't nice enough this year to get good bad Christmas classics back-to-back. With Fatman, we were promised a violent, angry Santa Claus, only to get a film that can't decide what it wants to be and is slightly better than it deserves to be because of it. Like Billy, I feel like I got coal under my tree.

Fatman is really two movies in one. One half is trying to be an earnest critique on the corporatization of Christmas and the "decline of society." Surprisingly, that's the side with Gibson. This is no bad Santa. This Santa goes to a bar to drink milk and use his powers to pressure a guy into not having an affair with the bartender. This Santa believes in what he and Ruth, a.k.a. Mrs. Claus (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), do, and he refuses to sell out, tearing up when he notifies his faithful elves of the new status quo. "I've lost my influence," he bemoans.

Meanwhile, Fatman's other story delivers on the promise of the good bad movie. Much of that is credit to Walton Goggins, who simultaneously deserves better and seems right at home. This is an actor who can seamlessly transition from prestige TV series (The Shield) to cheesy B-movie (Machete Kills) to Quentin Tarantino masterpiece (Django Unchained) to network sitcom (The Unicorn). And Goggins is perhaps the only person who knows exactly what movie he's in — or at least the one he should be in. He stars here as Skinny Man (I see what they did there!), a hitman with his own personal vendetta against the Fatman. How can I describe the Skinny Man? Let's see… he rocks an all-black look, including a turtleneck; kills a lot of mailmen; shows a kid the cigarette burns he got from his parents, then buys the kid's $1 toy plane for $150; and gives A-plus deliveries of good bad movie dialogue like "You remind me of my mother: She wasn't a good listener, and she never when to shut the f--- up," and "I'm looking for the Fatman… Santa Claus, motherf---er!"

These two drastically different films collide in the last 20 minutes, finally giving us the angry, violent Santa we were promised. Even so, he's not that angry or violent. I mean, he's definitely angry about the carnage brought on by the Skinny Man, and their Western-style standoff is violent, but both levels could have been higher. If anything, the climactic sequence between Fatman and Skinny Man makes you wish you had instead asked Santa for the much more interesting-sounding prequel. "You think you're the first?" Chris barks when they prepare for battle. "You think I got this job because I'm fat and jolly?!" Honestly, I don't know, because other than Santa shooting some cans in his introduction, we're never given any hint of a backstory. That mistake, and waiting so long to unleash this version of the character, is even further magnified by how menacing Chris is at the end of the film, when Fatman comes face-to-face with the very naughty boy who tried to have him killed.

And once the credits rolled, I couldn't help but relate to an earlier line from Billy: "You just messed up big time, Fatman!"

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