Early on in “Big Game,” someone is spectacularly blown up by a surface-to-air missile. It’s a key moment, with Jalmari Helander‘s (“Rare Exports“) exceedingly dumb film seemingly taking the position that for the next (barely) ninety minutes it’s going to be a knowingly insipid and campy genre throwback. Unfortunately, that’s only the case in fits and starts. Blending a variety of tropes—from Spielberg-ian coming-of-age films, to lunkheaded shoot-me-ups of the ’80s and ’90s, to the ridiculous loglines of the Cannon Films catalog—”Big Game” attempts to both replicate those styles while also sending them up, but doesn’t have assured grasp on tone to make it work.
The film—which surprisingly managed to get a decent cast for this kind of thing—finds Samuel L. Jackson playing the unpopular President of the United States, William Moore. His poll numbers are tanking, and he’s earned the resentment of Morris (Ray Stevenson), the Secret Service agent who took a bullet in the chest for him and is being forced into retirement. Because “Big Game” riffs on these kind of obvious plot developments, it’s not a surprise to say that Morris is one of the conspirators who manages to bring down Air Force One over the Finnish mountains, with plans to take the President hostage and make him a martyr or something. But one thing Morris and his bad dude buddies didn’t count on was 13 year-old Oskari (Onni Tommila). He’s in the woods partaking in a traditional rite-of-passage, where he must return to his village with an animal he’s hunted to mark this transition to adulthood and define the kind of man he’ll be. Oskari stumbles across the President, and together they have to survive the elements, each other and an assortment of villains on their tail.
To the film’s credit, there are some nice touches. Jackson’s President, for example, is essentially a wimp, physically weak, inept with weapons and useless in hand-to-hand combat. While he does get to add to his “motherfucker” collection, the actor is cast against type, with his usual tough guy persona turned on its head. Meanwhile, at the tiny, cost effective set that represents the Pentagon, Jim Broadbent makes the most of his head scratching appearance in this low-budget effort, with his doddering, know-it-all CIA agent hitting the perfect note of satire and parody that Helander aims for, and misses, in the rest of the movie.
There is tendency among certain reviewers to give movies a pass because they happen to be “dumb fun,” but there is a difference between that and just plain dumb, which is crucial. More often than not, “Big Game” lands in the latter category. While it eagerly wants to riff on a sea of action classics, merely referencing those kinds of movies doesn’t forgive the lack of inspiration in this film’s own plot mechanics. Helander leans far too hard on the clichés of the movies he wants to replicate or poke fun at, making the already brief runtime feel long, particularly in the third act (and probably leading to Felicity Huffman‘s role being severely cut; though credited, she has a few lines in the whole movie). Clearly working from limited financial resources, the special effects often rely on poorly rendered, whatever-could-be-afforded CGI, and it says something when the sweeping vistas of the Finnish mountains and valleys of the second unit photography outshine every scene in the main feature.
This sort of slipshod production and inconsistent feel is made all the more frustrating when the last ten minutes of the movie display an over-the-top wildness and free spirit the rest of the movie sorely lacks. If there is one reason to rent (don’t buy a ticket for this) “Big Game,” it’s for a final sequence that involves an ejector seat and…well, we don’t want to say too much. It’s one of the few moments when Helander breaks free from convention and goes for broke. One wishes that the director had been braver or more upfront about the commentary in the film about America’s military omnipresence on a global scale. It’s tucked into the movie at the end, but it’s so on point and biting that you want more.
“Big Game” comes away with the distinction of being watchably terrible. There is a certain ridiculousness that is engaging, but this shouldn’t be confused for merit. “Big Game” isn’t as witty as it thinks it is, rarely transcends the very movies it wants to knock and its intentionally hamfisted approach isn’t particularly endearing. Helander hunts for big laughs and big action, but comes back with a runt of a movie that’s barely fit for a meal. [D]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.