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Big Game

D: Jalmari Helander / 90m

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Onni Tommila, Ray Stevenson, Victor Garber, Jim Broadbent, Mehmet Kurtulus, Ted Levine, Felicity Huffman, Jorma Tommila

On the eve of his thirteenth birthday, and following the tradition of his Finnish community, Oskari (Onni Tommila) must go alone into the mountains and hunt down and kill a wild animal such as a deer. If he succeeds, as his father (Jorma Tommila) did, he will be regarded as a man. But when Oskari chooses a bow as his weapon of choice, he proves less than capable with it, and he heads off uncertain as to how well he will do. Meanwhile, the President of the United States, William Moore (Jackson), is aboard Air Force One heading for a conference in Helsinki. Travelling with him is his senior security officer, Morris (Stevenson), who once took a bullet intended for the President. When the plane is targeted by mercenaries led by Hazar (Kurtulus), Morris gets Moore into an escape pod and jettisons it. As he parachutes to safety, missiles strike the plane and it explodes. Below, Oskari is tracking through the forest when Air Force One careens through the trees above him and crashes. Oscar discovers the escape pod and releases Moore.

At the Pentagon, the Vice President (Garber), along with General Underwood (Levine) and the director of the CIA (Huffman), are made aware of the situation. Using satellite feeds they begin to track the President’s whereabouts, and are aided by terrorism expert Herbert (Broadbent). He correctly identifies Hazar as the culprit responsible for the attack on Air Force One, though the mercenary’s true reason for doing so, to hunt the President for sport, remains a mystery to them. In time, they also learn that Morris  is working with Hazar and his job is to deliver the President so that Hazar can hunt him.

While Hazar and his men begin to track the President, Oskari tells Moore about the rite of passage he’s on. They make camp for the night and the next morning press on with Oskari’s hunt. It’s not long, however, before Hazar finds them both and takes the President hostage, though only temporarily, as Oskari rescues him (though not in the most conventional of manners). In the process they discover that Air Force One has come to rest in a lake, and that their best hope for survival lies within it. But once they’re aboard they find themselves trapped, and with a bomb that is quickly counting down…

Big Game - scene

The most expensive movie yet produced in Finland, Big Game is a throwback to those action thrillers from the Eighties and Nineties where one lone hero took on a whole slew of bad guys and offed them in various inventive ways. Here the twist is that the lone hero is a thirteen year old boy, and the location – while reminiscent of Cliffhanger (1993) – is the stunning Bavarian Alps (that’s right, it’s not Finland). Though he naturally has top billing, Jackson is actually a supporting player in a movie that keeps its focus firmly on the path to manhood being taken by Oskari.

This allows the movie to rise – briefly – above the usual run-of-the-mill heroics expected of this sort of thing, but at the same time, to minimise the amount of risk or danger both Oskari and Moore find themselves in. At one point they find themselves in a fridge hurtling down the side of a mountain and then plunging into a river. But Hazar and his men make only a token effort to chase them, and they both emerge from the fridge with minor abrasions. It’s meant to be a man hunt (and the title is a pretty big clue as well), but it’s more like a polite ramble with the occasional burst of distracting gunfire. And it ends with a gloriously explosive finale that feels rushed, even if it is immensely satisfying. There’s a specific target audience here – aside from Hollywood producers – and it’s early teenage boys. It’s a boys’ own adventure, but devoid of real threats or real pain.

But despite the long-winded beginning, and the lack of any appreciable tension, Big Game is still straightforward, enjoyable stuff that ticks a variety of boxes while sidestepping some others. Jackson’s slightly pompous President is soon taken down a peg and learns a lot from his young rescuer; Stevenson’s loyal agent has a secret agenda and an Achilles heel of a health condition; Hazar is a predictably urbane psychopath; the location photography is often breathtaking; the Pentagon seems to be staffed by only ten people; and Levine and Huffman’s characters seem so inept it’s a wonder they’re in the positions they’ve reached. Add to all that a performance from Broadbent that feels like it should be in another movie entirely, and you have a movie that falls back on some tried and (not to be) trusted plot devices and stereotypical characterisations.

However, Helander – adapting an original story by himself and producer Petri Jokiranta – does invest the movie with a sharp line in humour (Oskari doesn’t recognise Moore at all; Hazar tells a helicopter pilot his best chance is to run as the mercenary doesn’t have a gun yet), and even allows Jackson to get in a carefully edited “motherf-“. It’s good to see the star of so many low-grade thrillers in recent years play against type (Moore gets beaten up twice), and even better to see that he’s enjoying himself. But it’s Onni Tommila who steals the show, his narrow gaze and determined features giving perfect expression to a boy who won’t give up, despite the odds against him (and the fact that he’s terrible with a bow and arrow). With Helander adding some family issues to the mix as well, and making Oskari resourceful but not impossibly so, the movie retains a core focus that serves it immeasurably.

Rating: 7/10 – while not as violent as audiences might expect (or want it to be), Big Game is still an enjoyable, though lightweight, piece of high concept entertainment; Jackson and Onni Tommila make a great team, and if, as it seems, the way is left open for some kind of sequel, then that’s not such a bad thing either.