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Big Game
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by Jay Seaver

"One's a Finnish tween, the other's the President of the United States..."
4 stars

Kids used to ride bikes to the theater to see movies like "Big Game"; as opposed to dialing up a video-on-demand service, and, man, that's just an indication that most of them wouldn't be able to handle what its young hero goes through, right? Nah, they've got no control over what plays where, any more than their parents or older siblings who might go for the idea of Samuel L. Jackson as the President of the United States forced to team up with a kid to survive in the wilderness.

This comes about because President William Alan Moore (Jackson) is betrayed by the Secret Service Agent (Ray Stevenson) who had previously taken a bullet for him, sabotaging defenses so that Air Force One can be from the sky. It's on the way to Helsinki and goes down in a Finnish wilderness preserve, where Oskari (Onni Tommila), an under-sized boy just turned thirteen, is undertaking a coming-of-age hunt. He stumbles upon the President's escape pod, but both Agent Morris and wealthy psychopath Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus) are pretty fair hunters themselves.

What they actually mean to accomplish is kind of vague at points - certainly, Morris's motivation is clear enough, but while both the film's title and the way the villains talk indicate that the plan seems to be dropping the President in a "Most Dangerous Game" situation, that mostly seems to come about by accident, and other comments toward the end indicate something more is meant to be going on (maybe original novelist Daniel Smith has bigger plans). It's not exactly revealed back in a Pentagon briefing room filled with underused character actors - Victor Garber, Ted Levine, Felicity Huffman, and Jim Broadbent - that, for all it interacts with what's going on in Finland, could be a bunch of scenes shot later to push the running time closer to ninety minutes.

That doesn't much matter, though, because what's going on back in Finland (though actually shot in the German Alps for more photogenic, mountainous terrain) is a whole lot of fun. Though the movie is at times surprisingly violent as it establishes that the villains mean business for something made with kids in mind, there's a bit of winking at the excess as well, and they way that this rural Finnish kid doesn't exactly feel the need to drop everything because the American president is in trouble amuses. The soundtrack by Juri & Miska Seppä deliberately calls back to John Williams, while the tendency to frame things like Oskari's discovery of the escape pod as encounters with something from out of this world also reminds one of 1980s Amblin adventures.

The action is also pretty darn impressive. Writer/director Jalmari Helander doesn't have a huge budget, but he has enough to whiz and zoom around the landscape when that's called for, and in some ways not being able to obsess about every detail in every corner helps maintain the movie's adventurous tone as opposed to things feeling violent and nasty. The big scene is obviously kind of silly, but fast and fun, and there's a good mix of high drama and playfulness to the finale.

Most importantly, though, there is Onni Tommila and Samuel L. Jackson. Fans of offbeat movies may remember Tommila from Helander's Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (as strange an evil-Santa movie as you'll find), and while he's hampered a bit when working in English, language doesn't necessarily factor into seeing how this kid desperately wants to live up to his father's example and be a great hunter. Jackson, meanwhile, may be best known for his confident, super-cool roles, but he's arguably at his best when playing contrary to that, with Bill Moore more than a bit of a nerd who relishes briefings and likes to consider things carefully. It's a warm and funny performance, delightful in part because one might easily expect this sort of stunt casting to go the other way. The pair make an unlikely team, but the bond they form out of being seen as less-than-obviously capable makes the movie hum.

That's the sort of thing you build adventure movies for kids around, even if it may seem a little corny to studios looking for a hit with a slightly older audience. The funny thing is, that older audience should enjoy "Big Game" just fine - with plenty of action, an engaged Jackson, and an ability to wink and have fun with its genre, it's a summer adventure worth biking the the multiplex (or a friend's house) for.

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originally posted: 07/15/15 00:53:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  26-Jun-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 25-Aug-2015

  07-May-2015 (15)

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