BIG GAME: Finnish Boy Aides Hunted President Samuel L. Jackson, Kids Everywhere Win

by Brendan Foley

Do you remember as a kid, the way you would ‘play’ movies after you had watched them? How, after an afternoon spent enjoying the adventures of the Goonies or Harry Potter or Indiana Jones, you would charge outside with your friends or siblings and begin play-acting the best beats, folding in your own locations and ideas over the familiar story?

While Jalmari Helander’s feature films are a good deal more accomplished than the backyard brawls of yesteryear, they still manage to evoke the feeling of a film fan merging his favorite genre elements into a personal and specific vision. By mixing Hollywood thrills with the locations and traditions of his Finnish heritage, Helander is coming up with movies that deliver classical thrills while still playing to their own beat.

Helander’s first film, Rare Exports, was a fun little horror-comedy, a Joe Dante-esque riff on the Santa Claus mythos that managed to be just mean-spirited enough for the scares to land, while still being a relatively cheeky and light-hearted affair. The Interweb folk went fairly nuts for Rare Exports, but I thought the film sort of collapsed in the home-stretch, overloading on cartoonish CGI and dropping the ball on its central conceit (don’t build your whole film around the reveal of a monster, and then not reveal the damn monster).

Big Game, Helander’s second film, now on Blu-ray from the awesome folks at Anchor Bay, doesn’t achieve the same dizzy heights as Rare Exports’ wildest moments, but it’s a much more solid, well-structured action romp that should delight genre fans of all ages. It’s a perfect film for geeky moms and dads to watch with their sons and daughters, with action and laughs that have been carefully modelled after Hollywood’s action excess of the ’80s, but with a pint-sized Finnish boy in place of Sly or Ah-nuld.

Onni Tommila (the star of Rare Exports) stars as Oskari, a 13-year old boy from a tightknit hunting village. There is a tradition in the village where the boys go out in the woods on their 14th birthday with only a traditional bow-and-arrow and must come back with a hunting trophy of some kind. Oskari feels especially pressured to do well on his test, due to his feeble physical stature and the legendary status that his father maintains in the village after his own test (motherfucker brought back a BEAR’S HEAD).

Oskari’s test is interrupted when the flaming wreckage of Air Force One crashes into the mountainside and he stumbles across an escape pod housing the American President (Samuel L. Jackson). It turns out that the head of the secret service (Ray Stevenson) has conspired with a terrorist madman (Mehmet Kurtuluş) to bring down the plane for a special ‘Big Game’ hunt.

As Oskari and the President make their way through the countryside and try to evade capture and/or death, their exploits are watched by some of the Presidential staff, stuck on the other side of the world and unable to help. There’s Victor Garber as the Vice President, Jim Broadbent as Old CIA Guy, Ted Levine as Guy in Army Uniform and Felicity Huffman as Woman who Doesn’t Do Much.

These cutaways to the war room (or whatever it’s called) are easily the weakest section of the film. Despite being loaded up with quality actors, there’s nothing about how these scenes are written, played or cut that distinguishes them from the expositional crap that loads down so many standard American films. Helander proves such an adept mimic of Hollywood style, he even ported over the shit that no one likes.

Thankfully, the majority of the movie is focused on the mountain, and this material really works. Tommila is growing into a remarkably confident young performer, and Helander uses the kid almost as pint-sized Bruce Campbell. There’s just something hilarious about seeing a child being flung by an explosion or punched in the face by The Punisher, especially given how unflappable Oskari quickly proves to be.

Tommila also benefits from spending most of his scenes opposite Jackson, and the two make a great unlikely screen duo. There’s a warmth to Jackson in this movie that I haven’t seen in a ton of his recent movies, and he seems to genuinely be enjoying himself as he spars with Tommila. Helander also made a big choice in how he opted to depict an embattled President: He makes him a fucking coward. Watching Samuel L. Goddamn Jackson scream and flail about helplessly, or get the crap kicked out of him in every fight, is endlessly amusing, and Jackson shows no hesitation in playing to the film’s goofiest moments and conceits.

Everyone seems to be on-tone, and that definitely helps Big Game. Stevenson in particular has a knack for playing the big and broad moments while also finding the quiet beats to express the humanity of his thuggish villain. One of these days, people will wake up to how much this guy has been wasted in a post-Punisher landscape, and hopefully start writing him better material.

Helander’s script is a tight little machine of set-up/payoff. It’s easy to predict the various beats that the film will hit, but Helander ties his narrative points into the ongoing arcs of his characters so successfully that it feels tremendously satisfying when they hit their climax. When Oskari fails to draw back the bow properly in the first couple minutes, you know the conclusion has to somehow involve him performing that action successfully. And yet, when the moment does happen, it’s a stand-up and cheer bit of action.

Big Game is the kind of down-the-middle family-film success that the big studios often seem incapable of producing in this day and age. It is truly ‘For All Ages’ fun, with action to satisfy the adults and a kick-ass kid hero that I’m betting many boys and girls will instantly adopt as a champion once they see him dangling from helicopters or surfing freezers down mountainsides (long story). Helander and Tommila make a great team, and here’s hoping they’ll keep finding new ways to fold Hollywood formula to Finnish customs for these weird and damn delightful little movies.

Big Game hit Blu-ray August 25th from Anchor Bay Home Entertainment

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