Soaring shots of the great outdoors set to a thundering soundtrack distinguish its opening credits; later, a Finnish hunter sets his 13-year-old son Oskari (Onni Tommila) on a 24-hour solitary hunting excursion. If it seems familiar, that’s a good thing: “Big Game” radiates the thrilling atmosphere of an ’80s/’90s-era adventure-adventure excursion. Putting a finer point on Hollywood’s abandonment of such eager-to-please entertainments for more unwieldy spectacles, “Big Game” is entirely a foreign production.
The second feature by Finnish genre director Jalmari Helander, the movie fulfills the promise of his amusing debut “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” which involved another child survivor facing the threat of an evil Santa Claus. With its “Cliffhanger”-meets-“Die Hard” vibe, “Big Game” is at once more believable and completely ridiculous. It doesn’t take long to set the pieces in motion. Jackson’s president is forced to evacuate Air Force One over a Finnish mountain after his plane is shot down by a power-hungry lunatic (Mehmet Kurtulus) and his anonymous minions. Rescued from his escape pod by a perplexed, arrow-wielding Oskari, the leader of the free world joins forces with his newfound young friend to evade terrorist capture — and, naturally, help the little guy overcome his own fears.
As the characters make their way through the wilderness, Helander routinely cuts back to a control room in Washington, where the vice president (Ray Stevenson) and a team of operatives watch the proceedings in a prolonged state of confusion. Rather than having any direct influence on the plot, their recurring scenes provide the movie with one more typical element from the silly narratives from which the movie cheerfully draws. We may as well be listening in on the writer’s room when a hilariously cool-headed Jim Broadbent, as an all-too-prescient operative able to predict the movie’s plot twists in advance, assesses their goals: “Find the president, kill the sons-of-bitches, bring him home.” And… scene.
But even if “Big Game” has fun with its lightweight premise and relegates character motives to the sidelines, it doesn’t skimp on production values. The early crash sequence, which begins in the clouds and includes a stunning CGI shot involving parachutes and missiles brushing past each other, seems to have constituted much of the production budget — but the filmmaker must have saved something for the finale, another moment of explosive absurdity that doesn’t disappoint. By contrast, the scenes in between these moments are practically microbudget, mainly set against the dense forest scenery. Oskari and the president wander through the woods and spend the night chatting about their various challenges. Worried about pressures from his father, Oskari finds encouragement from the president, who shares his own insecurities about his job as he contends with being a lame duck.
The dime-store quality characterizations extend to the movie’s chief villain, a bad guy who’s just bad because he’s bad. As the president’s longtime security guard, Victor Garber does his best to give his role a menacing edge, but Helander and Petri Jokiranta’s screenplay doesn’t bother with more than perfunctory backstories. This is no “Air Force One.” In “Big Game,” what you see is what you get, and it’s more than enough.
That’s not to say the eventual running, punching, and shooting in the final act doesn’t suffer from formula fatigue, but Helander still manages to satisfy expectations without overextending his ambition. The finale, set in the underwater wreckage of Air Force One, manages to seem utterly absurd even as it maintains an agreeable momentum. The gleeful energy the director brings to each twist is liberating; it keeps poking you to make sure you don’t stop grinning.
If everything in “Big Game” is ostensibly a prop in the director’s toy chest, none of them offer more fun than Jackson himself. While newcomer Tommila holds his own as an increasingly confident young warrior, the ease with which Jackson continues to own his B-movie appeal remains a wholly satisfying experience. Along with unleashing his trademark vulgarity at a crucial point, Jackson delivers a droll monologue involving bathroom problems prior to delivering the State of the Union that unquestionably ranks among the endearingly preposterous moments of his career this side of “Snakes on a Plane.”
Ultimately, though, Jackson’s very presence heightens the movie’s meta quality. As with “Rare Exports,” Helander mimics the look and feel of a big-budget excursion, but the loose story matters less than the energy with which he hits each familiar beat. “Big Game” may be inspired by Hollywood productions, but in this era of overproduced and largely redundant spectacles, it could teach them a lesson.
“Big Game” opens in limited theaters and on VOD this Friday.