By Elias Savada.
If Oskari Kontio, the cautious, newly-minted 13-year-old boy that is half of the unusual buddy team in Big Game, were Jewish, he’s having one heck of a Bar Mitzvah day. Theme: Wilderness Action Adventure on wry. Finnish writer-director Jalmari Helander, in his English-language feature debut, is throwing quite the absurdist coming-of-age party for the lad. Thrust by his father (Jorma Tommila) into the densely forested, snow-capped land of Nokia, Oskari (Onni Tommila) steels himself for a traditional male rite of passage: bag a big-ass antlered deer and prove to your dad’s grizzled hunting friends that you are now a man. His solitary excursion — armed with an over-tightened bow, a few arrows, a persnickety ATV, and some hot dogs (well, let’s call them frankfurters, their German equivalent, as the film is a German-Finnish-British and just a dash of U.S. mustard co-production) — ends up with one big uninvited guest: mild-mannered William Alan Moore a.k.a. The President of the United States (Samuel L. Jackson!).
Armed with adorably cheesy and oddly believable visual effects (by Scanline VFX), Air Force One is on its way to Helsinki for some confab where POTUS is required. Naturally in films like this (i.e., Air Force One), a respected, pill-popping Secret Service is about to go rogue, for better or worse. Here he’s named Morris (Ray Stevenson), who once took a bullet for his boss and has a bad ticker to show for it. He’s about to enter forced retirement. In the mountains below, there’s a psychopath named Hazar, who takes out the president’s plane and its F14 entourage all too easily with a surface-to-air missiles, the CEO of the USA spiraling earthward in an escape pod. The baddie, played by Turkish-born German actor Hehmet Kurtulus, is a cool nut skimpily molded after Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988), another inspiration for the original (as well ludicrous and illogical) story Helander wrote with producer Petri Jokiranta. This is low brow, high (as in what are you smoking) concept entertainment, chock full of derivative material from scripts favored by producers Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer.
While the dark-haired, black-gloved Hazar, an illegitimate son of a wealthy oil sheik, apparently isn’t your normal political, ideological, or religious fanatic, he’s out to literally bag the big one (hence the title). He’s staking out Lapland, looking for a trophy president, the lame duck variety, and doesn’t want anyone getting in his way.
When all heck breaks loose, a few inefficient people back in the USA (mildly frantic Vice President—”We’ve lost the President like we’ve lost a set of car keys!”—Victor Garber, CIA Director Felicity Huffman, a situation-under-control general played by Ted Levine, and old school, sandwich-munching CIA field operative Fred Herbert, perhaps a little too knowledgeably portrayed by Jim Broadbent) gather at a bunker in “The Pentagon Headquarters, Washington, D.C.” Continuity be damned here (and elsewhere) for moving the five-sided building from Northern Virginia across the Potomac, and for putting the CIA there instead of at its base in Langley. Hey, they’re Finnish. Why should they know who runs the most powerful democracy in the world? Even in his second term, the U.S. President isn’t recognized by Oskari during their initial tête-à-tête.
This Scandinavian fairy tale has the same kind of oddball energy found in Helander’s first feature (based on two short films he made), 2010’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a fantasy-horror adventure starring his child co-star in Big Game (now entering release via Luc [Léon: The Professional, Taken 2] Besson’s EuropaCorp after a Midnight Madness screening at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival). A few of the same crew (composers Juri and Miska Seppä, cinematographer Mika Orasmaa) in the early effort capture the loony froth and action parody underpinnings both films boldly embrace. In the first film, Onni and his real brother Jorma play the Kontio brothers (same spunky character, same last name, although Pietri’s name has been changed), who attempt to prevent a long-frozen (think The Thing) fearsome, evil Santa Claus and his army of angry elves (naked old men!) from terrorizing the countryside.
There’s an specious, death-defying maniacal glee afoot in this outlandish outdoors thriller. Big Game is a foreigner’s vision of American conspiracy theory run amok. It’s quite a fever dream, and with a somewhat unbelievable ending, there’s room for Bigger Game down the road.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.