“There isn’t any spirit of the season anymore—hasn’t been for years.” Can you believe this diatribe against people he knows have been naughty is uttered by the beleaguered Mel Gibson playing a disgruntled Santa? As ludicrous (or fantastical) as that bit of stunt casting may appear, Gibson gives it his grizzled, cantankerous, out-of-step best in Fatman. Written and directed by brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms (Small Town Crime), this yuletide thriller captures a cynical mood that, on the surface, is far more Tarantino than Frank Capra. But underneath its violent outer shell, there’s a sweet and patient old-fashioned heart.

The set-up is at once obvious and brilliant, with a plot following three wildly different characters whose lives inevitably converge. Billy (Chance Hurstfield) is a spoiled rich kid who’s used to getting things his way. An unnamed underworld figure played by Walton Goggins runs an operation where he pays a premium for vintage toys made by an ambiguous company that marks its product as made in “Santa’s workshop.” Finally, there’s Chris (Gibson), who lives in the town of North Peak and has seen his mysterious holiday business drop off precipitously. These characters’ fates are sealed on Christmas Day, when Billy is disappointed after unwrapping a big present only to discover that it’s… a lump of coal.

From plot points to casting, Fatman on paper sounds like a laundry list of clichés, and in lesser hands this could either have come off too sentimental or too knowing. But the Nelms brothers and their cast treat this slightly-storybook world with the right level of seriousness. Goggins especially does well with lines that look completely cringeworthy in print. When he tells a post office supervisor, “I’m looking for the Fatman,” it doesn’t even occur to you to roll your eyes—he’s that convincing, simultaneously conveying genuine menace and dry humor.

The same goes for Gibson; the veteran and at times controversial actor knows what it’s like to go from box-office gold to a pariah, and the casting of the great Marianne Jean-Baptiste as his wife Ruth seems like a way to create sympathy for a figure who has often been reviled. It works; while the film’s complicated politics to some degree reflect Gibson’s conservatism, it presents ideas palatable to both the right–Fatman’s high concept is, after all, a “War on Christmas” — and the left: to make ends meet, Chris is forced to take on a U.S. government contract, and the results don’t exactly place the military-industrial complex in a favorable light.

The interplay between the male leads is fascinating, making good use of Gibson’s reputation. Why not cast a much-hated figure as one of our most beloved legends? As sinister as Goggins can be, he makes his unnamed assassin likeable, if only for his hammy delivery (“I’ve come for you, Fatman!” may be the line reading of the year). Goggins is his own man, but as he prepares to pursue his target, one sees some of the intensity of the young Gibson; they look nothing alike, and Goggins has never been the kind of leading man who gets cast in rom-coms, but he is very much in line with the more violent side of Gibson’s career, which makes for a curious parallel; it’s like one side of the younger Gibson is tasked with killing his older, run-down and now obsolete persona.

Still, Gibson is the star here. Even with most of his face disguised in a heavy beard, his eyes and body language do all the work of portraying a beaten but not quite defeated legend. While there may not seem to be much in the way of Christ in this fictional Christmas, the spirit of Christmas is well-served by a bloody third act that may well be a kind of Passion of the Claus. And in the end, the whole project is an act of redemption –- for Christmas, and for Gibson — and the cultural tensions that the film hints at pours fuel on the action movie tension.

Nothing says Christmas like… a gory revenge movie? Fatman may not be the holiday movie we need. But it’s the holiday movie we deserve.

Summary
It may not be the holiday movie we need. But it’s the holiday movie we deserve.
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