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Film Review: Big Game

Big Game (2014; Directed by Jalmari Helander)

An appreciative pastiche of the sort of dimwitted, morally unambiguous action movies that Hollywood churned out with arrogant imperialist panache in the 1980s and 1990s, Big Game transposes a fistfighting President, devious, well-armed terrorists, and concerned national security officials in secret Pentagon control rooms to the vast mountainous forests of northern Finland. There, a 13-year old boy must protect the President of the United States from those threatening his life while also hunting down and killing a wild animal to prove to his father and fellow hunters that he is now a man.

Big Game sounds like it should be completely nuts, but it oddly isn’t. It also sounds rather ambitious, but is in fact fairly low-budget and reasonably brisk without exactly being limited in scope (though its action sequences are a bit proscribed). Directed by Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander and co-written by Helander and Petri Jokaranta, Big Game doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind, ultimately, but it does muster both some vestigial admiration for the masculine rituals of rural hunting culture as well as simultaneous comedic derision for the smug, thoughtless manner that American power is applied globally. In this overheated fantasy telling at least, the hegemony of the world’s dominant superpower is so fragile that the only thing safeguarding it from disaster is a Finnish teenager who can barely release an arrow from a bow.

That teenager is Oskari (Onni Tommila), scion of a Lapland clan of formidable hunters who has ventured alone into the remote forest on a proud rite of masculine passage. On his heels follows the encouragement of his father (played by Tommila’s real-life father, Jorma) and the doubts of the other hunters in his prowess. Oskari is set on a (very literal) collision course with the AWOL POTUS, William Alan Moore (Samuel L. Jackson), whose survives the downing of Air Force One by surface-to-air missiles fired by the motiveless (apparent) terrorist Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus) with the collusion of Moore’s embittered Secret Service agent, Morris (Ray Stevenson). Oskari isn’t terribly impressed by Moore’s Yankee posturing (he claims the boy’s ATV as American property in order to transport him) and won’t take him to civilization until he becomes a man (ie. kills himself a deer). The mismatched pair bond by the campfire before engaging in a high-stakes escape from Morris and Hazar, while the Vice-President (Victor Garber), a canny old CIA hand (Jim Broadbent), and Army grandees watch the drama, agape, via satellite uplink from “the Pentagon Headquarters” (there are a few such endearing outsider’s inaccuracies, and it’s not entirely certain that they aren’t intentional).

Helander recombines bombastic, ideologically regressive American blockbusters like Air Force One, Die Hard, Red Dawn, and many more of that ilk into a film that is both a homage to the dumb, violent jingoism of the genre (indeed, often a mere parroting) and an almost imperceptibly subversive parody of it. Jackson’s President Moore is characterized as hapless and soft, a radar echo of the right-wing funhouse-mirror caricature of Barack Obama. Hapless though he may be, he proves hardy and hard to find (with Oskari’s help), to the continuous frustration of the brass back in Washington. It is repeatedly said, emphasized and underlined, that the whole missing President debacle is embarrassing (what, then, was Iraq?, one is tempted to ask), and perspiring generals are mortified that the Navy SEALs are forever 30 minutes away from saving the day.

To a great extent, Big Game is a standard populist cultural response to the almost ungraspable dimensions of American power and influence: all of these pompous, self-important people who run things don’t know as much as regular folk! This has been such a common trope in American popular culture (much of which is at least funded if not purposely crafted by the very elites that it purports to lampoon) that it has been taken seriously enough by enough people to form the form the basis for an insurgent movement in one of the nation’s two dominant political parties.

That Helander’s perspective is that of a foreigner – from dreaded social-democratic Scandinavia, no less – contextualizes the nose-thumbing opposition differently, especially given the way Big Game contrasts the traditional grassroots tribal wisdom of Laplanders with the brash technocratic expertise of high American officials. Big Game invests more value and infinitely more pride in the former than the latter, and Jackson’s sheltered President Moore only earns the sort of mythic cinematic framing that follows Oskari throughout the film by sharing in his liminal journey of maturation through the Finnish wilderness. Big Game is not precisely conservative in its scope and viewpoint, but it is at least traditionalist in its sympathies and distrust of the imperatives of neoliberal democratic capitalism and makes its point with efficiency and humour. Not bad for a ridiculous Finnish action b-movie.

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