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Non-Review Review: Big Game

Big Game is a rather unlikely combination. Jalmari Helander’s comedy action movie plays as a cocktail of Airforce One and E.T., a coming of age film blended with a old-fashioned action adventure film. It is a combination that works surprisingly well, allowing Big Game to be both playful and charming. Big Game feels like an homage to classic eighties and nineties cinema – the emotional beats are broad, the action is absurd, the irony is layered on pretty heavy. Big Game is always wry and self-aware, but never quite breaks character.

It is a potent mixture, and one that manages to hold itself together remarkably well across the film’s ninety-minute runtime. Big Game never takes itself too seriously, providing a light and exciting action adventure treat.

“I’m king… er… leader of the free world!”

Big Game is apparently the most expensive Finnish movie ever produced. It certain looks it. The film is packed with spectacle, relying on CGI to realise some of the more outlandish effects. However, Jalmari Helander has managed to assemble a pretty impressive international cast. Big Game stars Samuel L. Jackson as President William Allen Moore. Jackson is ably supported by an ensemble including Jim Broadbent, Ray Stevenson, Victor Garber, Felicity Huffman and Ted Levine.

To be fair, Jackson and Stevenson are the only members of that impressive international cast to do location work. Broadbent, Garber, Huffman and Levine spend most of the movie sequestered away on a closed set – their characters end up observing the action from the safety of the Pentagon. Still, it helps to give Big Game a suitably impressive international feel. It is a movie that should be quite palatable to English-speaking audiences. Although Helander casts young Finnish actor Onni Tommila in the secondary lead role, most of the dialogue is in English.

Time to make a Presidential retreat?

Time to make a Presidential retreat?

At the same time, part of the joy of Big Game is the playful attitude that it adopts towards its American characters and their world. Repeatedly over the course of the film, American characters and objects are defined in a way that makes them seem particularly alien in the context of the movie’s Scandinavian setting. At a farm “somewhere in Norway”, a homing beacon falls out of the sky like a meteor. On encountering Moore in the forest, the first question that young Oskari asks is, “What planet are you from?” After all, Moore is really just a strange visitor from the sky.

The life pod carrying the President is consciously framed so as to evoke an alien craft. Helander throws in some gratuitous lens flare when filming the sleek capsule. At one point, Moore and Oskari are forced to improvise an escape from hostile forces. Their escape mechanism is explicitly described as “an unidentified flying object.” The film repeatedly and consciously evokes E.T.: the first conversation between Moore and Oskari takes place through an improvised telephone; shortly afterwards, Oskari wraps Moore in a blanket as they embark on a journey.

Being President involves heated debates...

Being President involves heated debates…

A lot of the fun of Big Game accrues from the incongruity of the movie set-up. When it comes to action movies, the President of the United States is traditionally presented as an action hero. The basic premise of Big Game cannot help but conjure up images of Harrison Ford from Airforce One, but there are a lot of similar examples. Most recently, Jamie Foxx played an ass-kicking Commander-in-Chief in White House Down, but Bull Pullman’s performance in Independence Day also comes to mind.

Big Game has a bit of fun with the expectations that come with the territory. When it comes to offering survival advice to young Oskari, Moore suggests, “Sometimes you have look tough.” Much is made of the Moore’s lack of survival skills. He cannot even make it to the escape pod without losing a shoe; he cannot work a submachine gun; he cannot even start a moped. Big Game is never mean-spirited or malicious in its portrayal of President Moore, but there is a great deal of fun watching a President who freaks out when a mad man charges at him with a giant knife.

He could do with some chill-out time...

He could do with some chill-out time…

Then again, one suspects that this is the somewhat the point of the exercise. Although Big Game never labours its point too heavily, the film does touch on ideas of machismo and strength. Oskari encounters Moore when he is sent into the mountains to hunt and kill a wild animal to mark his transition to manhood; Moore suggests that the same transition could be marked by heroism that doesn’t involve bloodshed. Moore might not be an action hero, but the movie never questions his morality. He is a hero, even if he doesn’t meet the standards of other silver screen leaders.

To be fair, Big Game doesn’t explore these themes with a lot of depth, but there are some interesting ideas there. Instead, Big Game has a lot of fun with its concept and absurdity. Big Game doesn’t just go over the top, it rides over the top in an old freezer unit that one of the characters acknowledges as “convenient.” When Moore uncovers the convoluted motivations behind his attempted assassination, the movie never slows down to properly articulate its insane internal logic. “It’s a long story,” his would-be assassin acknowledges.

Machine Gun President.

Machine Gun President.

Big Game is incredibly self-aware, as one might expect from a film that advertises itself by promising “Samuel L. Jackson as the President.” Although his character is named William Allan Moore, President Moore suggests, “You can call me Bill.” It is no coincidence that “Bill Allan Moore” shares the first three initials of Jackson’s iconic wallet from Pulp Fiction, and that the missing initial is the same word that Moore fudges during a climactic showdown. There is something deliciously wry about casting Jim Broadbent as the CIA’s “longest-serving field operative.”

Big Game is great fun. It is a rollicking good time that never outstays its welcome or stretches itself too far. It is goofy and absurd, but in a manner that is never overwhelming or disengaging. Big Game captures the spirit and mood of a classic eighties action film. Hail to the Chief.

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2 Responses

  1. Just saw this, a fun movie and insightful review.

    I did notice how often the film liked to show the American military as bufoonish, almost childish from the tendency of the Seal teams to end up in exactly the wrong location and bluster about in macho fashion, to the general at the Pentagon all but bursting into tears when his confident predictions of early discovery were thwarted. It fits into Moore’s suggestion that the Americans ‘look tough’ without neccessarily being so.

    • Yep. I really enjoyed it. (And I thought it was reasonably affectionate in its spoofing of its American characters, but you’re right – it has great fun with American machismo, particularly at an international level.)

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