“This is not a good idea.” Uttered around the halfway mark by Samuel L. Jackson’s nonplussed President William Moore, this neatly summarises the thesis of Jalmari Helander’s Big Game (2014), an imperfect but enjoyable mixture of McTiernan-esque violence, Bruckheimer-esque silliness and 1980s-vintage Spielberg kids’ adventure. Indeed, Big Game’s veering tone often threatens to derail the audience’s suspension of disbelief, which is saved, by a thread, by a welcome and surprisingly un-badass turn from Jackson’s President Moore and the exceedingly likeable youth, Oskari (Onni Tommila), clearly having a blast playing Potus’ diminutive, self-appointed bodyguard.
It’s in the double act between Jackson and Tommila where the film is at its strongest, weaving an unlikely but believable friendship between an insecure man at odds with the demands of office and a young boy struggling to live up to the ritualistic hyper-masculinity of his elders. Helander consciously recalls such ultra-macho cinema as Predator (1987), First Blood (1982) and Cliffhanger (1993), but as remembered through the filter of Spielberg’s E.T. (1982). This texture is most evocatively rendered by Mika Orasmaa’s soft, lush cinematography, an aesthetic choice seemingly at odds with the villainy and plot-convolutions of the film’s conspiracy plot.
In presenting much of the action from Oskari’s perspective, Big Game pleasingly teases out the connections between its dual heritage of children’s adventure and more ‘mature’ action cinema. It’s a shame, then, that Big Game is at its weakest whenever it leaves President Moore and Oskari behind to focus on the conspiracy sub-plot, dropping in a needless last minute sequel-baiting twist that is visible from a mile off. These moments lack both the exuberance of the Osakri-Moore dynamic and the tension and intensity that audiences have come to expect from the likes of superior fare such as the Bourne series. Indeed, Big Game’s first act plays out as a paint-by-numbers episode of 24, not really creating a distinct identity until Oskari and Moore meet at around the twenty-minute mark. Moreover, the mediocre script is littered with howlers such as ‘life is too damn short not to have a cookie when you want one’. The bad guys’ motivations are muddied at best, in that all-too modern convention of holding back on information for a sequel that in all likelihood will never happen.
It’s easy to forgive these sins, however, when they are followed by our heroes winning the day in a vertical feat that beats even Die Hard 2’s (1990) climax for silliness and judicious over-use of slow-motion. Big Game is the definition of a mixed bag. Silly but rarely stupid, lovingly shot but often cheap-looking, it’s a forgettable but undeniably enjoyable and entertaining adventure. Cookie-cutter villains and disappointing sequel-baiting vie for dominance against an endearing turn from Tommila, imaginatively- staged action set pieces and a high concept matched only by its action forbears. In a world awash with cynical nostalgia cash-ins like The Expendables 3 (2014), Big Game, at its core a flawed B-movie, offers audiences an uncomplicated, affectionate and entertaining homage to the action-adventure of cinema past.