The genius of Finnish director Jalmari Helander – and I think it’s fair to call it genius – is that he comes up with wonderfully goofy ideas for his motion pictures, takes them to their logical extreme, and then pulls two steps back. The result thus far has been two motion pictures, the modern Christmas classic Rare Exports and now the action thriller Big Game, that deliver on all the wonderful fun of their premises but feel just real enough to avoid becoming one-joke movies. There’s character here, and there’s real inspiration, and there’s some truly wacky shit too.
In Rare Exports, Helander pit young actor Onni Tommila against the original, evil incarnation of Santa Claus, and transformed a rather blunt idea for a horror thriller into an impressive and downright Spielbergian tale of a boy who saves Christmas and, in the process, becomes a man. A very different rite of passage is at play in Big Game. This time, a lad named Oskari (Tommila again, now 13-years-old) has to spend 24 hours in the woods and return home with the biggest game possible, to prove his worth in his long and proud family line of hunters.
So – naturally – terrorists attack Air Force One, it crash-lands into the woods right on top of Oskari, and our young hero is forced to defend The President of the United States (Samuel L. Jackson, playing it completely straight) from elite bad guys and a corrupt Secret Service agent (Ray Stevenson). Using only a bow and arrow, of course. Because, well… of course.
And although the absurdly high concept for Big Game conjures over the top images along the same lines of the similarly ludicrous White House Down, Jalmari Helander lets his characters talk to each other. Before the fighting begins, Oskari (Tommila) and the President find common ground, and form a bond. By the time they are finally thrust into the action that we all knew was coming, it’s a natural extension of what almost – almost – seems like a natural series of events. We want to believe in all the stupid things that happen in Big Game, and because Helander portrays them in just the right way… we really do.
Then again, the tact with which Jalmari Helander metes out the action in Big Game may also have something to do with his budget. Big Game is an impressive thriller for its very specific, somewhat small size and scope, but Air Force One never really looks like the airborne tank other movies have made it out to be, and the war room in which (holy crap how did they get) Jim Broadbent, Felicity Huffman and Victor Garber try to assess the situation from afar looks like a leftover relic from the Cannon Group.
But that low-fi intimacy actually helps sell Big Game’s playful aesthetic; it’s a young adult kind of adventure, writ small but dreaming large, and elevating a young boy to heroism not because he’s an unstoppable badass from the beginning, but because he dreams of being worthy and fights hard to become so. Onni Tommila is a natural leading man, holding his own against Samuel L. Jackson and convincingly forcing the President of the United States to call him “Ranger.” He plays his moments of vulnerability with a forcefulness that makes his eventual call to action worthy of cheers. And Helander challenges this young man in ways that are just barely too big for him, making his Rambo-esque actions just this side of plausible, and that much more badass as a result. He’s a real hero stuck in a cartoon scenario, and he emerges thoroughly victorious.
Big Game is a fantastic three-star movie, a fist-pumping old-meets-new school thrill ride that makes you feel like a PG-13-year-old again. It’s funny but thrilling. Emotional but quirky. Big Game is clearly a winner.