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'Big Game' Serves Up Hollywood Action With Finnish Flair

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 26, 2015 6:15PM

Onni Tommila and Samuel L. Jackson in “Big Game.” (Photo courtesy of EuropaCorp.)

More than a little dumb, but more than a little fun, Big Game is a pure popcorn movie that should be a perfect fit with Hollywood's escapist summer spectacles. But even though the movie is mainly in English and features well-known stars, it comes via Finland, not Hollywood. So it has been relegated to one suburban theater for its Chicago area release (though it is more widely available through video-on-demand services).

That's a shame, because while Big Game is a not a must-see by any means, its widescreen views of gorgeous German mountains and forests (substituting for Finnish Lapland) do make it worth seeing on as large a screen as possible. And while the movie has its share of CGI effects (noticeably less polished than big-budget American films), a lot of its thrills come from pure, old-fashioned physical action. Writer-director Jalmari Helander grew up on American blockbusters of the '80s, and Big Game feels like a throwback to that less digitized era.

The shadow of '80s-era Spielberg also looms large over the movie, especially in the character of Oskari (Onni Tommila), a 13-year-old Finn trying to earn the admiration of his father, a legendary hunter in his village. But as Oskari embarks on a coming-of-age ritual in which he must traverse the wilderness alone and bring down a mighty buck, it's clear his father has little confidence in him, which feeds his own lack of self-esteem.

Meanwhile, miles above them in Air Force One, President William Alan Moore (Samuel L. Jackson) is on his way to an economic summit, but a Secret Service agent with a grudge (Ray Stevenson) has conspired with a non-ideological terrorist to bring him down in the mountains. There, the terrorist plans to claim the Prez as a hunting trophy.

The sabotage of Air Force One is one of the more cartoonish sequences of the movie, but you've got to be in a pretty lousy mood to not at least crack a smile as Stevenson parachutes from the plane and guided missiles literally pass through his legs on the way to their target.

Oskari finds the President's escape pod before his enemies get to it. Naturally this results in a classic odd couple, action movie buddy pairing, as the adolescent kid with a bow and arrow and the middle-aged leader of the free world try to elude the men out to kill them.

Intercut with the main action are scenes set in a rather smallish-looking Pentagon, where the Vice President (Victor Garber) and his advisors monitor attempts to find and rescue the Commander-in-Chief. Lending a hand is a know-it-all intelligence agent, played with relish by the great British actor Jim Broadbent. Felicity Huffman and Ted Levine (both given too little to do) add extra name value to the cast in these scenes.

Jackson serves his role well enough and young Tommila is appealing until he's stuck with some bad, tongue-in-cheek macho one-liners. But Stevenson and Broadbent steal the movie. The rogue agent's gripe with the President isn't exactly made clear, but Stevenson brings a balance of grit and empathy that makes you almost root for the bad guy. Broadbent, rarely called upon for these kinds of movies, seems to be having a blast being cast against type.

Helander's breakthrough film was Rare Exports (2010), which starred Tommila in a darkly humorous Christmas-themed film that featured a malevolent, troll-like Santa Claus. Though its storyline made it an instant cult movie, Rare Exports was at heart a pretty slick action film, so it's no surprise to see the director easing into a more conventional example of the genre.

We have more than enough filmmakers here in the states churning out blockbusters or desperately trying to join that club. But Helander seems to have a real affinity for this kind of doesn't feel like just a resume item for him. Despite a few bits of violence too intense for the overall tone, there's a kind of innocence and charm here missing from many recent movies of this type.

To rank Big Game against the year's most obscenely successful popcorn pictures, it pales next to the dinosaur cage match of Jurassic World but easily bests the super-standard superhero rerun, Avengers: Age of Ultron. With natural sets more impressive than any green screen creation, it's also prettier than both.

Read our interview with Big Game director Jalmari Helander here.

Big Game. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander. Based on an original story by Helander and Petri Jokiranta. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Onni Tommila, Ray Stevenson and Jim Broadbent. 90 mins. Rated PG-13.

Opens Friday, June 26 at AMC's South Barrington 30 and is also available via iTunes and other video-on-demand services.