It was notable that Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t make it to the premiere of “Big Game,” despite the pleas of TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes and the film’s director Jalmari Helander, because he was working, though as anyone who regularly goes to movies could’ve told you that was the case. An internationally renowned actor with a tireless work ethic is a dangerous thing, considering any filmmaker with a certain budget can get their film greenlit with a star of Jackson’s caliber and while Jackson hasn’t quite gone the way of Nicolas Cage or John Cusack of late, it seems like he hasn’t let his taste get in the way of a good payday. That has resulted in a stack of credits a mile high, with the oddities tucked between the Marvel and Tarantino films such as the Bollywood film “Kite” and other more generic thrillers such as “Reasonable Doubt,” all of which may be a testament to the actor’s universal appeal, but haven’t asked him to do much more than be Sam Jackson.
Helander, the Finnish filmmaker who first made a splash with the perverse Christmas tale “Rare Exports,” was likely well-regarded enough to get “Big Game” going regardless of Jackson’s participation, but with the actor’s value to investors, the director probably was more able to have more freedom to make the film he wanted to. It’s worth mentioning the economics behind “Big Game” because it’s a minor miracle that it got made.
The first film I’ve ever seen at Midnight Madness that I would at least consider taking the kids to, so long as language wasn’t an issue, “Big Game” could be described as heartwarming, in the same vein as the coming-of-age adventure movies of the 1980s that followed in the wake of “E.T.” Four years after “Rare Exports,” Helander once again turns to Onni Tomilla, a stoic child with determined stare to play the 13-year-old Oskari, who is embarking on his village’s rite of passage – hunting and successfully killing a buck in the Icelandic wilderness. While Onni is well-prepared to mimic a deer call and dress an animal, he isn’t quite physically strong enough yet to pull back the string on his bow, putting him in jeopardy of not be recognized as a man in the tight-knit community. Yet his father pulls what strings he can to make sure Onni gets his opportunity to prove himself and though deer or bears are scarce, something far more impressive lands in his lap, the President of the United States (Jackson), whose trip to Helsinki has been hijacked by a shady group of terrorists and it’s up to the boy to protect him.
As in “Rare Exports,” it’s Helander’s commitment to treating such a ridiculous premise seriously that makes it fun, but “Big Game” may be even better, not only because the director can mount major action set-pieces with the best of them – the downing of Air Force One sequence is particularly spectacular in terms of its composition and verve – but because he invests so much into the relationship between the President and Oskari, who share a kinship in the tremendous burden they feel in their need to impress others. There’s actually a beautifully written and acted campfire chat between the two in the middle of the film about bravery that is every bit as riveting as what Helander can pull off visually, a moment that’s as crisp and refreshing as the Finnish skies.
Tomilla is a revelation, having the chops to hold his own against the men armed to the nines that come his way during the film’s action scenes as well as Jackson, who proves to be the film’s real surprise. In interacting with the young boy, Jackson gives one of his most vulnerable and heartfelt onscreen performances in years, playing the president as a man who masks his weaknesses with bravado, but not a coward and when faced with real peril, uses his wits to complement what Oskari can do to ensure both their safety. The genuine sense of camaraderie between the two grounds “Big Game” so that when the film goes big — there’s an aerial battle fought in and around a helicopter — there are no questions asked.
“Big Game” also employs a starry crew in the Pentagon to establish instant credibility in presiding over the President’s rescue, a group that includes Victor Garber as the vice president, Felicity Huffman as the head of the CIA, Ted Levine as a five-star general and Jim Broadbent to establish instant credibility, though when the film cuts back to them, it means less time on the mountain with the President and Oskari. However, Helander builds a plot so structurally sound that the story of a small-scale assassination plot really fits into a larger scheme, with the double crosses and motives of each character outlined just enough that the payoffs, of which there are many in the final act, feel earned. When Oskari tells the President, “My forest, my rules,” he could be speaking for the director who takes audiences places they’ve never been and now has earned the trust to be followed anywhere.