“I am the president of the United States!” exclaims President William Allen Moore (Samuel L. Jackson) more than once, to no one in particular, in the throwback action thriller Big Game. Stranded in a Finnish forest after terrorists shoot down Air Force One, Moore can’t help but let all his fecklessness rise to the surface in a combination of indignation and panic. In his desperation, he must rely on Oskari (Onni Tommila), a young local on a hunter’s rite of passage, to get him to safety as enemies approach. As buddy films go, there are stranger pairings, but few so immediately filled with the possibility of oddball chemistry as a paycheck-minded Jackson forced to keep company with a child for whom English is a second language.
Soon, however, the narrative gets bogged down with the kind of rambling conversations and endless wandering through nature that could let the film pass for a filler episode of Lost. For a nominal thriller about a manhunt against the president, most of the film consists of lackadaisical movement around the forest, with the bad guys and heroes so disconnected by the editing that one never gets the sense that anyone is closing in on the other, and it feels as if the two groups will only intersect by random, lottery-odds chance. When action does break out, it’s less a culmination than a conciliation, like a restaurant manager assuring you that your hour-delayed meal will be comped. The best of these sequences, almost by default, is an agreeably ridiculous moment where Moore gets locked in a refrigerator and hooked to a helicopter while Oskari chases after and tries to cut the box loose. The scene is one of the few to live up to the absurdity suggested by the film’s premise, and its river-rapid conclusion raises the material to the level of knowing comedy.
No such breaks enliven the script’s dialogue, the cadence of which is so awkward that the American actors often sound as unfamiliar with English as the Finnish ones. Jackson, no stranger to putting some life into bad copy, struggles valiantly with the inconsistencies of tone in his lines, slipping between jaunty affability, craven weakness, and politician arrogance in the span of a few sentences. Often, though, the scramble becomes too much, and he opts for a lifeless drone. There’s even a hint of surrender in his voice in an early exchange with his not-so-trusty secret service agent, Morris (Ray Stevenson), in which he makes a crack about being shot before turning to his bodyguard and robotically apologizing, “Boy, that was insensitive, saying that guy who actually took a bullet for me!”
Distributor EuropaCorp didn’t produce the film, but Moore’s portrayal and arc align with some of the post-9/11 genre films the company has released in the last decade. Like Taken or District B13, Big Game introduces elements of political relevance, only to retreat into reactionary simplification. The film’s thematic quest is self-actualization through violence, not only in Oskari’s traditional hunt, but the president learning to kill for himself. A smarter film might have tied the latter to the rise of drone warfare and eked some dark satire out of making someone with the power to kill thousands with a signature feel what it’s like to personally take a life. Instead, the film simplistically validates the genre’s most basic, banal vision of strength, despite earlier offering a better definition of the term with a comic flourish. Discussing the idea of courage, Moore recounts to Oskari the time he wet himself just before he delivered a State of the Union address, but spoke with such confidence and poise no one knew the shame he felt in that moment. Big Game wades around in piss-soaked slacks of its own, but it lacks the conviction to distract you from it.