The iTunes 99 Cent Movie Rental of the Week: ‘Big Game’

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Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard earned dollar.

Big action. Big explosions. Big laughs. This week, iTunes goes – wait for it – big with the really big action/adventure, Big Game.

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My Forest, My Rules

Lame-duck, noodle armed President William Moore (Samuel L. Jackson) is having a bad day. After narrowly escaping an assassination attempt, the commander-in-chief finds his plane destroyed, his staff incinerated, and himself alone in the Finnish wilderness. Also, he’s being hunted by the man who betrayed him and a wealthy, psychotic terrorist. Betrayed, bewildered, and defenseless, President Moore quickly goes from lame-duck to sitting-duck. But fate has other plans for Pres. Moore, who finds himself smack in the middle of pint-sized 13-year-old Oskari’s (Onni Tommila) quest to kill some – you guessed it – big game and prove his manhood to his father. Seizing a bigger chance to prove himself, Oskari becomes The President’s sole protector as the unlikely pair attempt to outrun and outlast their pursuers. Backs are stabbed. Stands are made. Stuff blows up.

I know – it sounds ridiculous. And Big Game is ridiculous. But that’s sort of the point. Harkening back to the bombastic action films of the 1990s, Big Game tempers that style with a loving sense of nostalgia and youthful awe. The result is an oddly gratifying, sentimental film that combines the best elements of early Spielberg (E.T. – 1982) with A-game Renny Harlin (The Long Kiss Goodnight – 1996). But Big Game refuses to settle into either genre and instead carves out a wholly unique niche in the “buddy-action movie” realm.

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Instead of Looking Tough, We Have to Be Tough

Authentic is the word I’d use to describe Finnish Writer/Director Jalmari Helander. His previous film Rare Exports (2010) is one of the more twisted takes on Christmas cinema – in a particularly B-movie sort of way. Returning with Big Game, Helander further soaks his B-movie tastes in A-list waters. With stunning cinematography from Mika Orasmaa and an ever-intensifying slate of action set-pieces, Big Game feels as big as any Hollywood film – from 1990.

The action kicks off with a cleverly executed attack and escape from Air Force One. Once the smoke settles, Helander allows President Moore and Oskari a moment to catch their breath. Sitting by the campfire and eating charred hot dogs, they swap stories and find common ground in their separate predicaments. Turns out Moore is keenly aware of what the world thinks of his Presidency. Oskari, for his part, is just beginning to see that his own Father has little faith in his manhood. There’s an immediate tenderness in the relationship and Helander is wise enough to keep words and motivations simple. With two tender-hearted protagonists, Helander breaks the 1990s action hero mold and begins to set his story apart. Oskari and President Moore aren’t tough guys. But are they clever enough and brave enough to make it out of the wilderness alive?

From fireside to mountaintop to riverbed, Helander keeps Big Game moving at a breakneck pace. Action begets more action – and then something blows up. No, there’s not much fresh ground covered in Helander’s film. If you’ve seen Tango & Cash (1989) or The Last Boy Scout (1991), you’ll have a fair idea how Big Game will play out. If you haven’t seen those films, then you really should. They’re quite a lot of fun. But like the silly films that inspired it, Big Game is short on plot, thin on character, and big on noise and spectacle. In Helander’s hands, this is not a bad thing. Slow-mo shots of characters shooting arrows and diving from explosions are peppered throughout the film. But for all of its loving winks to a bygone action movie era – even the special effects have the look and feel of the ’90s – Helander never allows Big Game to settle too deeply into the realm of homage.

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I’m Actually on Your Side

That has a lot to do with Helander’s sharply realized screenplay. Big Game takes itself just serious enough to avoid becoming a joke, but it also knows when to laugh at itself. Helander particularly scores in his depiction of the US President. This is not the wise hero of American films. In fact, most of the film’s best laughs emanate from Samuel L. Jackson’s casting in that role. For the past 20 years, Jackson has cultivated the “ultimate badass” persona in movies. He’s played the part to perfection. Stepping into President Moore’s shoes, Jackson still looks the part. It becomes plain mid-attack of Air Force One that Moore is no badass. Weak-willed? Sure. Bickering over a lost shoe and bragging about being the commander of the biggest, baddest army in the world, Jackson delivers his hammiest performance in years. Wild glances and dodgy facial exaggerations only enhance Moore’s fallibility, making it all the more surprising when he eventually steps, however gingerly, into the realm of heroics. Anchoring Jackson’s ham is a quiet, soulful performance from youngster Onni Tommila who projects an honest sense of wonder and bravery as the lush forest around him erupts in chaos. Rounding out the cast is an impressive group of actors in playfully shallow roles. Ray Stevenson is a devious Secret Service agent, Victor Garber is a sleazy Vice President, Felicity Huffman is a clueless CIA Director and the indomitable Jim Broadbent – who is brilliant in everything and can officially do no wrong – is a brainy intelligence expert. They all bring an odd sense of credibility to the proceedings, even as Big Game rushes onward towards its big damn finale.

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Worth It?

You bet – as long as you aren’t expecting too much. With giddily one-dimensional characters, big ass explosions, and breathtaking locales, Big Game is a big dumb movie in all the best ways. Don’t think. Don’t blink. Drop that dollar this week and enjoy the bloody, silly-sweet charms of Big Game.

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