RECAP: Big Game

Big Game (2014): Jalmari Helander

Finnish writer/director Jalmari Helander cooked up a fun story that evokes Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” What if, instead of hunting humans, you hunted the most powerful human in world history–the American president?

That’s the movie Big Game is. What startles most is the price tag: $10 million. Samuel L. Jackson earns at least half that per movie, plus someone had to pay Ray Stevenson, Victor Garber, Jim Broadbent, Felicity Huffman, and the other Finnish actors on screen. And there’s the crew and all that.

Despite the absurdly low sum for shooting the film, Big Game finished its production as the most expensive movie ever produced in Finland. In per capita terms, the movie would equate to a $600 million dollar production in America. No movie has yet cracked half that figure.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A Finnish boy stumbles upon the biggest prey of all time–the President of the United States–and tries to save him so his dad will consider him a man. 

Hero (7/10)

In “Finland’s” mountainous forests, old fathers send their 13-year-old boys into the wild for a night of hunting. Whatever they bring back from the forest will determine their manhood and whether or not their image will hang in a revered hunting cabin deep in the wild.

Oskari (Onni Tommila) is about to embark on his own journey. The film begins in the mythic cabin, where his father shows him his own picture after his first Man Hunt. He carried a huge bear head on a rack strapped to his shoulders.

Father and son caravan with other old men into the mountains. Oskari receives a bow, which he is asked to draw back. He can’t do it. This bodes poorly for the prospects of his Man Hunt, and the old men know it. Still, the oldest man booms a speech about Manliness, Hunting, and Penis-Having, explaining that the results of one night’s hunt will forever define Oskari’s manhood.

Boy, was he right.

Oskari starts Big Game with little skill. He can’t draw the bow. He forgets to turn on the petrol tap to allow the engine on his ATV to fire. Even his father, in the film’s most poignant moment, proves to disbelieve in his son, when Oskari finds a deer head, pre-hunted, chilling in an ice box.

Oskari’s determination masks his lack of skill. When boys play at looking tough, they put on a scowl that’s all show, an effort to LOOK tough without BEING tough. That’s exactly the expression Tommila wears for most of the movie.

It’s a perfect expression, and one that could mask lack of acting skill. Oskari is a kid trying so hard to act tough. Is Tommila a bad actor, or in the perfect role? In the case of Big Game, it matters not–the effect is the same.

Oskari is resourceful. He knows that stringing two cans together makes an effective phone. And here I thought kids didn’t use that trick anymore. He locates the president’s missing shoe.

The kid is determined. He weeps when he discovers that his father doesn’t believe in him. International terrorists and Secret Service agents mean nothing to Oskari. His laser focus is on one thing–proving himself to his father. That determination leads him to leap at helicopters, roll down hills in a metal box, and fight terrorists. Nothing scares him. He’s tough enough to rally the President of the United States.

Villain (5/10)

A whole slew of bad guys are trying to off President William Alan Moore. At first we believe the chief villain to be Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus), a well dressed and well bearded crazy hunter.

Hazar might be the most sinister character, but the Villain role belongs to long-time bad guy Ray Stevenson. Stevenson plays Morris, President Moore’s top Secret Service agent who, we learn in a nice piece of expository dialogue, has taken a bullet for the president who is forcing him to retire after the Finland mission.

Morris says that taking a bullet changes one’s perspective on things. He has to pop pills several times a day and look at the scar covering his heart, where a tiny bullet fragment remains lodged, inching closer to his heart each day. This death sentence gives Moore the reason to dismiss him and Morris the reason to betray his boss.

Early in the film, Hazar targets Air Force One with a surface-to-air missile. Morris orders President Moore to evacuate the plane, stuffing him into a capsule that looks exactly like an Apollo command module and, with a sinister smirk on his face, jettisoning it toward the forest floor below.

Other SS agents grab parachutes and leap after the president, but they have a problem, Morris has zip-tied shut the chutes. They don’t open, and all of the agents smash to death on the rocks below. For good measure, Morris shoots one in the head.

Stevenson seems to have fun with his role. He’s sinister, and has played many such parts with charm. You might want to have a drink with Morris, just don’t ask him about his heart, the president, or anything important.

Turns out that Morris betrayed President Moore for $10 million. That seems a paltry sum. I think his task was worth at least $100 million. He believes that Moore can “barely do a pushup, much less run a country.”

The mission is not fun for Morris, unlike his crazy “lone wolf” counterpart. He just wants the money, and when he gets it, he decides to betray Hazar as well. Why? He posed no threat (Morris would certainly be discovered as the betrayer). He just left Hazar to be mean.

Action/Effects (3/10)

With a budget less than $10 million (was the movie funded by Agent Morris, as a way of telling his story?), Big Game is light on effects. They save the best for their huge explosion of Air Force One.

We watch from high above, spy satellite-level, as the fireball engulfs the dying body of Morris and pushes higher the ejector seat holding Oskari and President Moore. It’s a solid effect, more powerful for the lack of other effects in the movie.

Earlier, when Morris initially jumps from Air Force One, five of Hazar’s missiles streak past him. The crew used creative means to show the destruction of the planes without spending much money on it.

The camera cuts to Morris’s point of view. He falls through the clouds and looks up toward Air Force One and the fighter jets escorting it. The clouds, gray and black, obscure the jets but not the orange flashes indicating explosive contact between missile and target. No one had to render disintegrating F-22s; instead they just created light flashes. It’s enough to tell the story.

Sidekicks (2/8)

Big Game‘s most famous name played its weakest character. Samuel L. Jackson portrays an unpopular US President, William Moore, down 20 points and on his way to a pre-G8 conference in Helsinki. Moore would “rather take a bullet than go through another one of those conferences,” he says to his Judas, in a moment of shocking foreshadowing.

Moore might be the dumbest and most cowardly US president this side of Millard Fillmore. Evidence: Moore’s escape capsule lands in the forest, where Oskari discovers it. A four-digit code will open the capsule door, but the boy doesn’t know it. Using the condensation on the capsule window, Moore begins to write the code, only he starts writing it the wrong way. He wipes clean his mistake and writes the code–1492 if you ever need to know–in a direction that Oskari can read.

Later, when Moore and Oskari rest in the metal ice box floating on a lake, Moore asks Oskari if he thinks they lost Hazar and Morris. He’s put all his confidence into a 13-year-old boy.

Moore tells Oskari that he knows a lot about looking tough without being tough. Most politicians possess this skill, but Moore’s story bodes poorly for his actual toughness.

He tells Oskari that minutes before he was to give a State of the Union address he had to pee. And a little bit got onto his pants. So he walks onto the floor of Congress casually holding his notes over his crotch, worried that someone will notice. He delivers his speech without his voice wavering, without his hand shaking, and walks away without anyone noticing his pee stain.

Moore is very scared throughout Big Game. Perhaps he deserves a pass, as one man hunting him is his bodyguard, and his only protection is a teenager. The POTUS is so powerful that he can order the most powerful military force in history to invade any country he pleases. “Now I can’t even order a pizza.” Perhaps his fear is justified, but seeing it from a president is a little disconcerting.

Jackson, ever the game actor, always delivers a strong performance. There are no small roles, he might say, and he’s believable as a fraidy-cat president. His charm is the only thing holding up the character.

Henchmen (3/8)

Hazar shows up in Finland eager to hunt. He wears a beautiful double-breasted leather hunting coat, like something a rich oil sheik would wear.

Turns out that he is exactly a rich oil sheik, or at least the son of one. We don’t learn this until later. At first, he appears to be an insane rich person out to hunt the biggest game of all–the President of the United States.

Hazar rides into the wilderness on a chartered helicopter, piloted by a Finnish man. Hazar is so rich and powerful that he has a guy who unfolds chairs for him. Hazar sits on the chair, whips out a targeting scope, and calmly answers the pilot’s questions like “What is that?” and “Are you terrorists?”

Hazar says, “You certainly look terrified, so we must be.” He kindly offers the pilot, who is as thick as the forest he flees into, the chance to escape. But Hazar was never going to let him live. The man was merely a chance to test the guidance system on the Chinese surface-to-air missiles Hazar brought. The test was a success.

Hazar has pointy fingernails, the first time I’ve ever seen a non-vampire style nails that way. He doesn’t blink when Morris kills two of his men. Nothing seems to scare him. He’s described as a “lone wolf,” the most unpredictable kind of terrorist, but, if you are a 13-year-old boy, exactly what you would want to hunt in a wilderness?

Also trying to kill President Moore are Jim Broadbent and Victor Garber. The oldest CIA agent, Herbert, and the unnamed vice president, respectively, lead the charge to find the POTUS.

Herbert was a force the moment he walked onto screen, eating a sandwich. He figured out the terrorist plot in seconds, leaving the other spooks speechless. Yes, it turned out that he likely orchestrated the whole thing, but at the time it was impressive.

Throughout the film, Herbert knows just what is happening. He roams the CIA command center in his sweater like an uncle having an afternoon stroll. He likes to eat while working, or drink a glass of water. Whatever. This kidnap president thing is a minor problem for Herbert.

Garber is mad. He tells a five-star general, “As vice president, I am commanding you to SORT THIS SHIT OUT.” He can’t believe they could lose the president. Then he can’t believe that a satellite could track the president. I couldn’t either. Can a satellite identify the POTUS as he’s face down on a mountain?

Herbert and the vice president orchestrated the entire mission so the VP could become president. Couldn’t he just wait until Moore’s terms were up? All this seemed an interminable amount of effort with high risk for the guy next in line.

Points were deducted because I would have like Herbert much more had he just been a smart guy, not a guy in on it.

Stunts (3/6)

Hazar shows interesting fighting tactics when he roughs up President Moore. He knocks the president to the ground, and grabs his hand, gripping in a manner that appears to mangle it in such a way that any or all fingers will break should Moore move them improperly.

Hazar stabs at him; Moore blocks the knife with a briefcase, but he’s thrown into a control panel. The fight represents well Moore’s character–he appears tough, but is not a bit tough. Hazar chokes the president with a metal cable, but is fooled by Oskari’s deer call and whacked in the head with a fire extinguisher.

Oskari, or at least his stunt double, provides the best stunts. First, he leaps onto the ice box containing the president and the box dangles from Hazar’s helicopter. Later, the same box flies through the trees. Oskari falls off, but the chopper flies slowly. Oskari runs up a fallen tree and leaps onto the ice box, one-handed.

Climax (3/6)

After a long tumble through the gorgeous countryside and chilly streams, President Moore and Oskari emerge from their ice box in a lake, amongst dozens of dead fish, and Air Force One. Did you know ice boxes could float? Neither did I.

Moore asks the kid if he thinks they lost the bad guys, which is pretty sad to hear the president ask a child that, and also the kiss of death in movies. You always lose them until you ask if you lost them.

The pilfered safari copter immediately arrives. Hazar has new instructions, to simply kill Moore, so he can sit back and have Morris pepper the water with bullets until the task is done.

Moore and Oskari bail out and swim into Air Force One as the CIA control room watches. Much of the plane has flooded, but the upper level, where the cockpit and control room are, has only a few inches of water in it. Moore breathlessly tells Oskari that they’ll be OK, but you can hear he’s telling himself that more than the kid. We already saw the kid leap onto the ice box as it flew away.

Hazar explodes a hole in the plane’s roof and falls through it. He unveils a bomb and sets it for six minutes. He explains the plan: capture Moore, torture him for seven days, make him a martyr and show the world that the War on Terror must continue. “If it’s any consolation to you before you die,” Hazar says, “I’m actually on your side.”

Morris, sitting in the hovering chopper, cuts Hazar’s rope. Hazar and the president fight. Hazar tries to shoot Moore, but the gun fails. It falls to Moore, who picks it up and says, “Get these motherfuckin’ terrorists off my motherfuckin’ plane.” No, wrong movie. “You got to cock it motherf–,” before he unloads the clip into Hazar. Bad Guy One is dead.

Moore and Oskari strap into the pilots’ seats and eject. The heroes rise level with the helicopter. The film slows down to show Oskari drawing back his bowstring (he’s really doing it) and shooting an arrow at Morris, who hangs from the helicopter’s edge.

The camera follows the arrow as it streaks through the air, all in slow motion, toward the disgraced Secret Service agent. The arrow is heading straight for his heart, it’s almost there, it hits his shirt beside his tie…it bounces off. The boy doesn’t have the strength.

If you remember a little story Morris told earlier in the movie, you know what’s coming next. Morris, grinning, aims his gun toward his former boss. All of this is in slow motion, still. Then it happens. That piece of bullet lodged near his heart got the shove it needed from Oskari’s arrow and finally found its home in Morris’s ticker. Morris falls from the helicopter as the bomb in Air Force One explodes.

Back at the CIA, everyone thinks Moore is dead. Herbert tries to get the vice president to swear in. Not so fast, CIA spook. Back in Finland, a bunch of fish and parachutes are raining on the old men camping, awaiting Oskari’s return. They think the kid is dead.

All the men are rounded up by the Navy SEALS. Yes, they’ve captured exactly the wrong guys. Nearby, Oskari mounts the rock from which he had departed the night before. He’s confident, and he has his Big Game–the most powerful person on the face of the Earth.

Oskari’s dad runs to hug his son. The kid says, “Dad, this is…Bill.” They do a spit handshake. Oskari is now, finally, at 13 years old, a man.

Jokes (2/4)

Big Game itself is a joke. Everyone knows it, so we, the audience, play along. So do the actors, who are having fun hanging out in Germany for a few weeks.

We laugh WITH and not AT the movie because its focus remains squarely on Oskari. Big Game is not a story of presidential coup, it’s a story of a boy trying to please his pop.

President Moore always cedes command to Oskari. And Oskari is more than able to command. “My forest, my rules,” the boy says to the leader of the free world when he tries to drive Oskari’s ATV. He orders him off, and refuses to call Moore “Bill.”

This is a fast change from earlier, when Oskari asked Moore what planet he came from. He approached the escape capsule with bow drawn, throwing a rock at it. This scene recalled the chimps cavorting around the black obelisk in 2001.

Quickly, Oskari is convinced, but he has to look tough. He claims that he is the best hunter, and you can tell this is pure boasting, with nothing to back it up. We love his tenacity. “President, you go,” he says when facing down Morris with only a bow and arrow. Oskari’s bluster is cute and funny. Except it turns out he can back his bluster. Maybe he’s not all talk.

Setting (2/4)

Mountains, forest, streams, lakes–Finland’s got it all! Except when it doesn’t. Like, all the time, it doesn’t. Finalnd’s mean elevation is about 500 feet, and its highest point is called Haiti, and it’s about 4,000 feet. Watching the movie, though, makes Finland look like a haven for rocky, snow-covered peaks.

Those images of cool, mountainous Finland are actually Germany. Big Game was shot in Germany, and most of those exteriors are from the southern state of Bavaria. Why was a movie so obviously shot in Germany set in Finland? I don’t have that answer, but I’ll have to discuss the outdoors anyway.

The landscape of “Finland” was the true star of Big Game. Helander seemed eager to create some Peter Jackson-style buzz with helicopters flying around mountains. Without doubt, it works. You can’t look upon towering peaks and misty forests and not have your primal humanity unlocked. It makes you want to howl at the moon.

Helander has his characters explore every bit of the forest. The president and Oskari move amongst the mountains and forest, of course, but they also take a tumble into a gorgeous, clear mountain stream and gorge.

All this landscaping evokes one feeling–isolation. Hazar’s plan to hunt the biggest game of all falls flat when hunting on a bog. Now you begin to see why Helander turned his Finland into a new New Zealand. It’s harder to hunt stuff when there’s trees and such.

An average two points for filming spectacular scenery that wasn’t actually Finland.

Commentary (0/2)

Jackson is a black man playing the American president at a time when the real American president is a black man. Jackson’s Moore is portrayed as a weakling, a man who knows a lot about looking tough without being tough. He’s a feet up, cookie-loving kind of guy.

He’s soft. Might Helander, who wrote and directed Big Game, be commenting on Barack Obama, the real president? The United States, and Morris, believe Moore too soft to lead the nation. Moore says, before he’s betrayed, that he has “friends and enemies lining up to stab me in the back.”

Just about anyone whom the president trusts tries to kill him. His top Secret Service agent, the CIA’s longest-serving agent, and the even the vice president conspire to kill him. Whatever Moore’s executive skills are, we only know that his friends dislike him enough to want him dead.

Does all this mean that the director hates Obama? I believe the similarities to be more coincidental than intentional, but you might disagree.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

The most offensive part about Big Game is that a Finnish director pretended his country was brimming with Middle Earth-level mountains when it isn’t. Imagine John Ford shooting westerns in the Amazon. That’s the level of setting betrayal Helander delivers. don’t know much about Finland, but Finnish people watching the film must have scoffed.

Others

  • Oskari asks Moore for proof that he’s the President of the United States. That makes sense, especially because he doesn’t recognize him. Moore tosses him his passport, which says, beneath his name, “President of the United States.” I thought this was a movie embellishment, but according to this article, Moore’s passport probably would state his job description on it.
  • The Pentagon is tagged as “The Pentagon Headquarters.”

Summary (29/68): 43%

Big Game is a silly movie about a boy trying to become a man, who accidentally crosses path with some guys trying to kill the most powerful person on Earth.

The crew made a good movie for its price. More cash doesn’t ensure more quality, but in this case it would have. The movie isn’t long enough. I would like to have seen Oskari hunt and kill an actual animal. Perhaps a SEAL team could have fought with Hazar and his men.

In short, Big Game was too short, and suffered a bit for it. The movie proves a good distraction, but not a movie you will want to see a dozen times.