'Big Game': Toronto Review
Samuel L. Jackson is a President being hunted in Finnish mountains
TORONTO — The leader of the free world is in the hands of a Finnish 13 year-old in Big Game, Jalmari Helander's actioner ranging through the wooded mountains of Northern Finland. If the notion of Samuel L. Jackson playing a U.S. president strikes you as a stretch, your Spidey-sense is working: Despite some fairly impressive production values, this is Cormanesque pulp through and through, with a high-caliber cast — can that really be Jim Broadbent as America's most senior CIA analyst? — barely pretending their roles are for real. Often hilarious and even a tiny bit moving, the romp will clean up on VOD but deserves some theatrical play before that happens.
Helander directed 2010's Rare Exports, a well-loved satire about a Santa Claus American kids would never recognize. He's again in the remotes of Finland here, starting off on the day a boy is to become a man: Oskari (Onni Tommila), son of an accomplished hunter, is ceremonially sent off into the woods alone to kill his first beast. He can barely pull back the string on his bow, but within 24 hours he's expected to prove himself by bringing back a trophy head. But as the nervously determined boy is just settling into his camp for the night, the fiery wreckage of Air Force One tears through the trees.
It seems that either someone tampered with the Air Force One's security measures, allowing it to be shot down by a terrorist's surface-to-air missile, or there were snakes in that plane's circuitry. In either case, only the President survived, having been dropped from the plane in an escape pod at the last moment. The terrorists know he's alive, and that's the plan: Their leader, wearing jodhpurs and an SS-style double-breasted leather jacket, wants to shoot him up close so he can have his kill stuffed and mounted.
Back in D.C., the situation room looks like something a rural Finnish 13 year-old might imagine. Four very important government people whose roles are vague (one, played by Victor Garber, is addressed as "Vice President" — and I don't mean "Mister Vice President") lead a few subordinates in their attempt to locate the wreckage. Broadbent chomps a sandwich as he effortlessly assesses things. Felicity Huffman, looking at a wall of TV screens and bossing around underlings at keyboards, doesn't seem nearly as concerned with the day's outcome, or nearly as competent, as she did during the average control-room crisis on Sports Night.
But this outrageous fakeness is part of the fun, and is more than echoed back in the mountains, where the laws of physics are treated with about as much seriousness. After Oskari finds the escape pod and is made to understand the preciousness of its cargo (Jackson: "I'm the President? Of the United States?!"), the boy, who asks to be called "Ranger," promises to keep him safe. Jackson looks like he can hardly believe the movie he's in, but he goes where he's told. Sadly, Oskari is emasculated in his first opportunity to prove he's a warrior, leading to a fireside pep talk in which Jackson tells a long story that surely had him yearning for a Tarantino screenplay. The boy does better in his second make-or-break challenge.
Tommila steals the film, and not in a cute-little-tyke way. It's more that this is so clearly his world, and these characters out of a fourth-rate White House Down ripoff can't help but seem trivial in comparison. The young actor understands the humor here, but is fierce nonetheless; we care less about whether the President dies than whether Oskari will be seen by his father as the action hero he is.
Production company: Egoli Tossell Film
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Onni Tommila, Ray Stevenson, Mehmet Kurtulus, Victor Garber, Ted Levine, Felicity Huffman, Jim Broadbent
Director-Screenwriter: Jalmari Helander
Producers: Petri Jokiranta, Will Clarke, Andy Mayson, Jens Meurer
Director of photography: Mika Orasmaa
Production designer: Christian Eisele
Editor: Iikka Hesse
Music: Juri Seppa, Miska Seppa
No rating, 90 minutes