Big Game may be the most unlikely film to earn a premiere berth at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. Fortunately, its inclusion – as part of the Midnight Madness programme – is not a total waste. The sophomore feature from Rare Exports director Jalmari Helander is just not your typical film festival fare. It is a farfetched, sub-90 minute, action-packed adventure, smothered with cheese and featuring some of the most gleefully lunatic dialogue you can expect from a title where Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States. Despite its silliness and reliance on genre tropes, you can’t deny that it is unabashed fun from the first frame.
Jackson plays President William Moore, who is considered a “lame duck” by the presses and has such little notoriety that a bunch of Finnish hunters don’t even recognize him. He is en route to Helsinki for a pre-G8 summit when a batch of power-hungry terrorists, led by Mehmet Kertulus’s snarly henchman, unleashes a Chinese missile to take down Air Force One. Moore evacuates in an escape pod and is eventually rescued in the middle of the Scandinavian woods. His rescuer is a 13-year-old boy name Oskari (Rare Exports’ Onni Tomilla, who holds his own against Jackson).
Oskari is off in the wilderness to capture a piece of big game, a rite of passage for 13-year-old boys in Finland (like a Bar Mitzvah for the sons of hunting enthusiasts). This expedition will prove what kind of a man Oskari is. However, the teen is lousy with a bow and arrow and his father thinks he will not have the toughness to collect any animal bounty. Oskari gets more than he bargained for when the president – one hounded by the press and even his own government, including Ray Stevenson’s sinister Secret Service agent – becomes Oskari’s catch. The boy agrees to help deliver President Moore to safety, before terrorists capture him and hold the world’s most powerful man for ransom.
As befits the genre picture, many esteemed character actors are stuck as bureaucratic tropes in the Pentagon, trying to keep tabs on the off-the-grid president and spout useless exposition to the audience. Among the actors shamelessly enjoying this quick payday include Felicity Huffman as the CIA director, Victor Garber as the vice-president and Jim Broadbent – suspiciously absent from Mike Leigh’s latest, Mr. Turner, but present here – as a high-profile counter-terrorism expert. (We know that Broadbent’s stock character has returned from a long break away from his service as Huffman’s character explains it to Garber’s VP – even though a man of that rank would certainly know who the man already is.)
Big Game is silly but it is never incompetently directed. A Lord of the Rings-lite score from Juri and Miska Seppä rouses, while Helander does not skimp for schlocky effects. The few major action set-pieces mix big thrills with ludicrously laughable dialogue. (Jackson’s obligatory use of his favorite curse word is especially cathartic.) In the film’s most jaw-dropping visual effect, Stevenson’s double-crossing Secret Service man parachutes off of Air Force One. As he flutters toward the ground, the camera follows him on the way down, while missiles zoom past him as they throttle toward the plane.
Meanwhile, the cast members are all aware of their role in a ridiculous adventure and do not put any effort to take things seriously. A more heavy-handed touch would have dulled the brisk, high-octane entertainment. When Broadbent explains the Pentagon’s predicament – “Find the president, kill the sons-of-bitches, bring him home” – he munches on a cheese sandwich. How fitting.
However, Helander’s film is not just another title to add to a list of movies that are so awful they’re amazing, as there are some effective dramatic moments between Jackson’s jilted president and the determined Oskari. Both characters have big expectations – whether it is be a strong, fierce hunter or lead the free world with efficiency – but are hiding a vulnerable center. When the two set up camp (illogically avoiding the world’s slowest terrorists that are not too far behind), they share stories of how insecure they feel in the eyes of others. Oskari’s dad pressures him like the American public does to Moore.
Jackson may be the least convincing screen president in some time, but he gives the part dignity and just the right jolt of brash energy to mesh with the film’s self-aware tone without turning into a Funny or Die skit. Tomilla, meanwhile, is intense and committed to his role. At one moment, his character mimes cutting an animal, grabbing its beating heart and biting it. It is more badass than anything Jackson says during the course of Big Game.
The film even has fun with other much-parodied moments from other adventures; in one scene, President Moore and Oskari escape the bad guys while trapped in a white freezer, which falls off a cliff into an icy river. Cue the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull jokes, but at least this film does not try to take this implausible escape route too seriously. It accepts the lunacy with a big grin on its face.
In the end, Big Game works as absurdly enjoyable entertainment, which will elicit far more goofy grins than eye rolls. One could look at the adventure as a junk-food option to give one’s palate relief amidst a variety of serious festival entrees. But as one character says to another, “Life is too damn short not to have a cookie when you want one.”
Go ahead and engorge on this sugary delight.
Big Game, starring Samuel L. Jackson as the President of the United States, is a blast of spectacular, silly fun that is aware (and proud) of its own absurdity.