TORONTO — In Big Game, a new action movie that premiered Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, Samuel L. Jackson plays the president of the United States, who is marooned in the Finnish wilderness after Air Force One is destroyed by terrorists. His only hope of survival is a 13-year-old boy named Oskari (Onni Tommila), who entered the same vast mountainous forest with camping supplies, a knife, and a bow and quiver of arrows, tasked by his father (and his whole village) with killing something massive before he comes home the following morning.
Together, they have to thwart the terrorists, especially since the president is, essentially, useless once he lands in the wild. He can't throw a punch, he doesn't know how to fire a gun, and he can't even persuade Oskari to take him immediately back to civilization — the boy decides instead to continue his quest, and the president is forced to go along for the ride.
Big Game was co-written and directed by Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander, best known for his 2010 Santa-Claus-is-an-evil-monster cult movie Rare Exports, and his latest effort has just about the same go-for-broke moviemaking spirit as that fan favorite.
But Helander was clear that he was not attempting to make some kind of pointed political statement about Barack Obama by depicting an African-American president as, essentially, a wimp. He told BuzzFeed News at the festival that he didn't even really care if the president was white or black. "I just wanted him to be as old as possible and vulnerable and stuff like that." Jackson signed onto the film, Helander explained, simply after sparking to his script.
"I don't know anything about U.S. presidents, and I don't care," the filmmaker said with a laugh. "It's just the president of the United States. Just the idea of him."
That idea was a basic action movie what-if: "I have the most powerful man on the planet and, when you put him in the forest, he actually can't survive there," said Helander. "Oskari meets somebody who's even worse [at] being in the forest than him. That's the whole idea."
But it was more than that to others. Helander had barely been at the festival for 24 hours, and he already sounded weary of talking about the — to him, nonexistent — politics of his movie. The U.S. distribution rights to Big Game were acquired by EuropaCorp at Toronto, and ironically, the film's accidental association with Obama could help boost interest when it opens stateside in 2015. For an American audience, it's hard to shake the timely similarities between current criticisms of Obama as an overly cautious intellectual and characters in the movie who criticize Jackson's president for having no backbone in the White House, and no skills to fend for himself in the wilderness.
As it happens, according to Helander, that creative decision was as much Jackson's as his own. "He was really clear that he didn't want to be able to fight," said Helander. "He wanted to be so bad in it that he'd fight like a girl, like, he can't deliver even one punch. … When the stunt guys and coordinators were offering some nice moves, he didn't want to take anything. He wanted to suck, suck really bad on that kind of stuff."
But Jackson did have one action-based request, which Helander was happy to oblige: "He really wanted to kick the terrorist in the balls."
Though the actor is currently shooting a film in London, he emailed this comment to BuzzFeed News via his rep: "The president is a career politician, not a fighter."
At its midnight premiere at TIFF, Big Game regularly had the audience bursting into appreciative applause at its more outrageous moments. (Just one example: A secret service agent dives out of Air Force One and through the air just as a series of surface-to-air missiles come streaming past him to blow up the plane.) "I was just trying think of the most awesome things I could do, and in the movies, you can do it," Helander said. "That's what I think movies are for: Making things that couldn't happen in real life."
This post has been updated to reflect that EuropaCorp acquired the U.S. distribution rights to Big Game.