Movie sales pitches don't get much better than this: Samuel L. Jackson and a 13-year-old kid fight terrorists in a raucous action film that's Die Hard by way of '80s-era Steven Spielberg. Just think of the possibilities—Sam Jackson decked out in a presidential suit firing guns at evil foreigners while calling them all "Motherfuckers!" Sam Jackson, for no good reasons, shouting venom like, "That little motherfucker just killed your asses, motherfuckers!"
That's the sales pitch behind Finnish writer-director Jalmari Helander's Big Game, one of several world premieres in the Toronto International Film Festival's infamous genre cinema program Midnight Madness. And, to its credit, Helander's sophomore effort (his follow-up to 2010's delightfully nostalgic and wacky Christmas horror-comedy Rare Exports) never tries to be anything more than a slightly kid-centric mash-up of Cliffhanger and Air Force One, with some Hanna thrown in of good measure. It's an unabashed love letter to the kind of action-adventure movies Hollywood cranked out back in the '80s and '90s. Helander presents young hero Oskari (Onni Tommila, who more than holds his own) as Snake Plissken without a driver's license; Oskari and President Bill Moore's (Sam Jackson's character) fight for survival in the outskirts of Northern Finland is Escape from New York remixed as a scenic mountain romp.
So why does Big Game feel like such a missed opportunity?
All grade-A high-concept with merely a decent follow-through, Helander's undeniably entertaining ode to old-school American action is the beautifully shot skeleton of a much grander and crazier movie. Big Game gets off to a strong start, though. On his 13th birthday, Oskari is sent into the woods by father, a hunter extraordinaire, to complete the same 24-hour hunting excursion that all of his community's adult males did when they were his age. not exactly surgical with a bow-and-arrow, Oskari struggles to get anything accomplished until an airplane crashes over his head and he discovers an escape pod deep in the forest. The plane was Air Force One, and the man inside the pod is the POTUS, the victims of backstabbing by a disgruntled Secret Service Agent (Ray Stevenson) who's made a deal with terrorists to let them kidnap the President and make a worldwide example of him. But not if Oskari, who's ready to price himself as a man, has anything to do it.
In a movie that strives to be over-the-top, President Bill Moore is, strangely, the most subdued character, meaning there's little room for Samuel Jackson to perform at peak Sam "Motherfuckin'" Jackson. It's his calmest and, believe it or not, touchingly sweet performance in years, a rare chance for the acting O.G. to do some honest-to-goodness acting in something that doesn't require him to wear a goofy eyepatch and play the straight-man to scenery-chewing superheroes, or get all cartoonish for Quentin Tarantino. Helander gives Jackson his most heartwarming monologue in ages, one that fits nicely into Big Game's overall silliness—to teach Oskari about being a resilient, business-first man, "Mr. President" recounts the time he pissed his pants before going on camera for a State of the Union address, and how managed to hide the wet spot on his pants and deliver the speech without distractions. It's an absurd scene that benefits tremendously from Jackson's credible presence. He surely knows it's Snakes on a Plane-level drivel, but he delivers it with the elegance of, well, President Obama.
You just wish Helander applied that same goofiness to Big Game's action sequences. At one point, Jackson and Tommila dodge bullets being fired from a helicopter while stuck inside a large freezer that's tied to the chopper by ropes, and it's a wild image, with Helander's camera zooming alongside the freezer, but it's just a better-staged variation of the CGI monkeys scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Later into Big Game, Oskari shoots his bow-and-arrow at the same helicopter as he's floating in mid-air on a parachuted cockpit, which is, thankfully, devoid of spotty visual effects but is also pedestrian when compared to, say, Bruce Willis' John McClane jumping off the Nakatomi tower's roof near the end of Die Hard. Even at its most enjoyable highs, Big Game's John McTiernan mimicry never goes far enough.
Because of course he does, Sam Jackson eventually gets to drop yet another crowd-pleasing "motherfucker" quotable, but its placement at the film's end feels like both a last-second moment of fan service and a reminder of what Big Game could have been.
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