More a tourism video for Finland, Samuel L. Jackson's badassery is wasted on this explosion-happy flick.
Before we get into this, let’s first talk about Samuel L. Jackson. Let’s talk about how he was, for a time, the highest-grossing actor of all time and still hangs out in the top 5. Let’s talk about how the man has acted in over 160 films; about how at 67 years old he’s still playing the badass in charge in movies like, well, every Marvel movie for one where he’s basically the leader of the superhero pack as Nick Fury. And all with no superpowers, only an eye patch and a degree in kicking ass. Let’s focus on all these good things before we remember that Samuel L. Jackson has never played the President of the United States in a film…until now. He’s been a Jedi already for Pete’s sake. What’s unfortunate for the great Mr. Jackson, is that the first time he chooses (or is offered) to play the President is for a film that truly underutilizes the talent he possesses. Heck, Samuel L. Jackson took on the seemingly insurmountable task of facing off against snakes on an aircraft and turned camp into cult history, so why have we never entrusted him with the (fake) care of the most powerful country in the world until now?
What makes even less sense is that the film in question, Big Game, is directed by a man, Jalmari Helander, who has already created what can only be defined as a Finnish cult Christmas-horror film, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. So here’s a man with some experience in turning ridiculousness into something fun. Big Game is neither ridiculous or fun. This is a film full of talented actors (Felicity Huffman, Jim Broadbent, and Victor Garber are all featured in addition to Samuel L. Jackson), who are given low-substance dialogue and the essence of a plot in what is essentially a high budget National Geographic explosion pic.
The film tidily leads us through its third-grade reading level script with dozens of aerial shots of the Nordic mountains. Then on to Air Force One where President William Alan Moore (Jackson) laments the day’s headlines—no explanation for how the current printed paper could make its way onto an aircraft flying over Finland; we couldn’t have written in an iPad here?—that exclaim how poorly he’s tracking in the approval polls. He jokes with his head of secret service, Morris (Ray Stevenson), about how he’d rather take a bullet than never eat a cookie again. An insensitive thing to say to a man who obviously very recently took a bullet for the President—wait, a President who underwent an assassination attempt is polling low?—and conveniently expresses his regret for forcing Morris into retirement in the near future. Morris doesn’t seem too happy about the forced career move. He could be wearing a shirt that reads “Traitor” at this point and it wouldn’t be more obvious where the film is going.
Meanwhile, on the ground below in Finland, Oskari (Onni Tommila), a boy on the brink of 13 goes with his father to the wilderness to begin his rite of passage in their community: a solo hunt where he’ll prove himself a man by bagging a large animal or come back to embarrassment. Without much faith from his father, Oskari takes off on his four-wheeler. The young man gets bigger game than he could have imagined, however, when Morris’s partnership with a terrorist, Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus), brings down Air Force One and the President escapes in a capsule that the boy stumbles upon. This short action sequence of the film, albeit the catalyst for the film’s entire plot, focuses on spectacle with nary a thought for consistency. For one, the President has only just risen for the day and dressed, unable even to finish putting his shoes on, when Morris ushers him off the plane, and yet all the next frames involve the plane going down in the night-darkened forest. I mean, I get it, explosions look much better in the dark, but it’s a weird discrepancy. Morris’s means of ensuring no one can get to the President is also too simple, and one has to wonder why some people die so easily and yet Morris deliberately makes killing the President more difficult.
But in a film titled Big Game, it’s reasonable to expect the action will focus on “the hunt.” So, Oskari finds the President, and they banter about him not recognizing the most recognizable man in the world—a little funny since he’s played by a highly recognizable actor. Oskari proceeds to keep the President alive, using his camping skills and bonding with President Moore over his fears of disappointing his father. There’s a lot of talk of bravery in its many forms. Then the very next morning the bad guys show up and immediately overtake the President. Well, so much for “the hunt” theory. They are about to cart the President off when Oskari finds his bravery and swoops in to save the President.
Back in the U.S. the assembled leaders watch all of what’s taking place via satellite like it’s some sort of movie, no one taking any real action only sipping on their coffee, eating their takeout food, and putting on their worried faces. Victor Garber is the Vice President and he does a good job yelling maniacally in frustration. Jim Broadbent has an excellent intelligent deadpan, and yet as the retired “best CIA agent” the country ever had, he mostly keeps his cool while stating the obvious while everyone ogles. This depiction of American political-military efforts, if enacted in real life, would have meant our demise as a country long ago.
With explosions galore and enough aerial widescreen shots to make up an impressive Finland tourist video, Big Game has a fair amount of spectacle, but all of its substance lies hidden away within the treasure troves of talent possessed by its widely underutilized cast. As an actor who’s proven he can lead films to success when given enough freedom, it’s astonishing how passive a character Samuel L. Jackson plays in this film. The man isn’t even given any good one-liners to laugh at. Tommila ends up being the real star, so younger audiences may find appeal in the film, but he plays Oskari as always serious, there’s no real youthful playfulness found within the film. There’s also hardly any stakes. The terrorist should be the most frightening aspect of the film, and yet he literally has no agenda, no real reason for choosing to capture and kill the most powerful man in the world.
Big Game benefits from its location’s beauty, and it will earn a certain draw with Samuel L. Jackson on its poster, but Helander has definitely missed a chance to play up the campy action potential of Jackson, the premise, and a script with built-in inanity.