When I saw “Super” at the Toronto Film Festival's Midnight Madness presentation, I really liked it. I wrote an enthusiastic review for it. I'm not sure I would have predicted, though, that the director of that film would have the biggest movie of the year for 2014, though.
It is much easier for me to confidently predict that within the next few years, Jalmari Helander is going to be writing and directing giant Hollywood movies, and that he's going to be very, very good at it.
His first film, “Rare Exports,” felt like the sort of movie that Joe Dante would have made in the 1980s, a film that takes this left-of-center approach to some high concept idea, a film that would have a passionate cult fan base. His new film, which premiered at tonight's Midnight Madness, is an action movie called “Big Game,” and it feels more like the sort of movie that Steven Spielberg would have made in the 1980s, a film that aims right down the middle, a film that knocks that high concept right out of the park with style and clockwork precision.
Young Onni Tommila was the star of “Rare Exports,” and now, at 14, he is also the lead in “Big Game.” He gives an exceptionally good performance as Oskari, a Finnish kid who is finally turning 13. In his village, there is a tradition on the 13th birthday of going into the woods alone for one day and one night, then bringing whatever you kill out of the woods the next morning as a rite of passage. This is the day Oskari is going to become a man, and he's especially determined to do well because his father (played by his real father, Jorma Tommila) is a legend because of how well he did on his test. He came back with the head of a bear that he killed alone with a bow and arrow, the same bow and arrow that each 13 year old carries into the forest as their only weapon, and the same one that Oskari is now going to use.
At a film festival, it would be reasonable to think that you could make the entire movie about that premise by itself, and it could be an affecting coming of age story, particularly told against the amazing wilderness background of Finland's mountains. There are some early scenes in the film where I just couldn't get over the beauty of the country itself. [NOTE: According to some of you in the comments, the film was actually shot largely in Germany, and Finland does not have similar mountains. Neither of those things are apparent from watching the film, and I apologize for not being an expert on the topography of Finland, where the movie most definitely is set.] It's a gorgeous film, and photographer Mika Orasmaa gives the film a very rich visual palette, as well as a sense of slick style that makes it feel ten times more expensive than I imagine it really is.
The film takes a decided left turn when we suddenly cut to Air Force One, in the sky and on its way to Helsinki. President William Moore (Samuel L. Jackson) is dropping in the polls and frustrated, to say the least. What he thinks is a bad day gets decidedly worse when Air Force One is attacked and he is forced into an emergency pod and dropped out of the back of the plane.
It's Oskari who finds that emergency pod in the woods, and good thing, too, because by the time he helps the President down, there is already a team of assassins on their way to the site, kicking off one of the most confidently crowd-pleasing action movies I've seen in a while. I adore “The Raid” films as pure kinetic violence, but I am more than willing to admit that they are perhaps too pure for some audiences. “Big Game” is more along the lines of a “Die Hard,” a tightly scripted action film with really sharp character work, some big smart set pieces, and a clear sense of how to make sure everyone watching is having fun.
The cast is on point. Ray Stevenson plays Morris, a Secret Service agent who was shot in the line of duty defending Moore once before. Victor Garber is the Vice-President, forced to watch all of this unfold a half a world away while hunkered down in a bunker with the CIA Director (Felicity Huffman), the Director of the Joint Chiefs (Ted Levine), and a specialist on terrorism played with his typical grace and good humor by Jim Broadbent. There's also a delicious and carefully understated bad guy performance by Mehmet Kurtulus that I particularly enjoyed.
But enough cannot be said about how good Onni Tommila is in the lead as Oskari, especially since so much of his work is just one-on-one with Samuel L. Jackson. They've got great chemistry, and Tommila never gives an inch. The film is funny and it's packed with moments and lines that made the Midnight Madness audience erupt in laughter and cheers. It is FUN with a capital F-U-N, and it is wildly commercial. The vast majority of the film is in English, and the right distributor could turn this into a real underdog hit. This is a film I can't wait to watch with my own kids, and I imagine it will be a huge iconic film for them, a film that dares to suggest that when the fate of the free world is on the line, you don't need James Bond or Iron Man or even John McClane to save it. All you really need is one kid, the right kid, on the right day, with the right heart, and that heroes come in many shapes and sizes.
“Big Game” is currently seeking distribution. That will change quickly.