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Review: Mel Gibson is a gun-toting Santa in smart, funny 'Fatman'

Santa Claus has a contract out on his head in this violent action-comedy

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's a Christmas miracle. 

Mel Gibson plays a gritty, hard-nosed Santa Claus in "Fatman," a wild, funny, tongue-in-cheek take on the myth of jolly old Saint Nick.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste (left) and Mel Gibson in "Fatman."

In this thoroughly modern telling, Gibson's Chris Cringle is in an interracial marriage (Academy Award nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste is his loving wife, Ruth) and is able to work through subsidy payments from the the U.S. Government. When toy production falls behind and payments are due, Chris and his elves are forced into a military contract to make control panels for fighter jets. Times are tough, even in Santa's village of North Peak, Alaska.  

He's also being chased down by a ruthless assassin. In a role he was born to play, Walton Goggins is Skinny Man, an eccentric killer for hire who takes on a job to off Santa, which leads to a bloody showdown in the snow. 

OK, so it's not "It's a Wonderful Life." But "Fatman" — written and directed by Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms ("Small Town Crime") — is a smart, forward-thinking B-movie that reimagines and repositions Santa's story in the confines of a genre exercise. It's not for everybody, but midnight movie geeks will welcome it like an early Christmas present.  

It would be easy to take Santa and make him a crochety, hateful Scrooge; it's what Billy Bob Thornton did with "Bad Santa" and its sequel. But the brothers Nelms keep their Santa pure of heart and essentially good — not the Santa you know, but a Santa for our times.

Walton Goggins in "Fatman."

When he bellies up to the bar at his local watering hole (he takes his shot of whiskey with an Alka Seltzer), he spots a patron hitting on the barkeep. But being Santa, he knows all about the man, as well as his wife and children at home. He sends him packing with a stern warning, all in the name of keeping the peace.

Gibson, a grizzled 64, plays Chris with weary resignation. It's hard work being Santa, but someone's gotta do it, and he's essentially a modern worker scraping by out of steadfast duty. Gibson wears the weight of the role well, the creases around his eyes telling the story of a lifetime of delivering joy to others at a great personal toll to himself. 

Goggins is note-perfect as the turtleneck-clad killer, hired by a spoiled brat (Chance Hurstfield) who wants Santa dead after he receives coal under the tree on Christmas morning. Goggins has a ball as the villain, and the Nelms brothers give him plenty to play with, including a backstory explaining his childhood beef with Santa and some rich character detail pertaining to his pet hamster (a side trip to a pet store is a riot).  

The climax is a bit wonky, as the Nelms brothers' script gets written into a corner that it is unsure how to unwedge itself from. But "Fatman" is full of fresh ideas, fully realized concepts and stellar casting, and makes for an unexpected holiday treat. These jingle bells rock. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Fatman'

GRADE: B+

Rated R: for bloody violence, and language

Running time: 100 minutes

In theaters