Following a former soldier-turned-goldhunter dispensing with Nazis, this World War II-set Finnish action-thriller is an extravagantly bloody and entertaining spectacle.
July 27, 2023
Lean, mean and a Nazi-killing machine: that's Sisu and its handy-with-a-hunting-knife (and pickaxe) protagonist alike. This stunningly choreographed Finnish action film's title doesn't have a literal equivalent in English, but means stoic, tenacious, resolute, brave and gritty all in that four-letter term; again, both the movie and the man at its centre fit the description. Former soldier Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila, perhaps best-known internationally for 2010's Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale) has one aim. After he strikes gold and plenty of it in Lapland's far reaches, he's keen to cash in. For someone who has already lost everyone and everything to World War II, that requires transporting his haul; however, the year is 1944 and German troops still lurk even as the combat winds down. Accordingly, getting those gleaming nuggets from the wilderness to a bank means facing a greedy and unrelenting platoon led by Helldorf (Aksel Hennie, The Cloverfield Paradox), who can spy a payday and an exit strategy for himself.
Before anything yellow shimmers, Nazi-filled tanks are sighted, a single shot is fired or a blow swung, Sisu explains its moniker as "a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination". Text on-screen also advises that "sisu manifests itself when all hope is lost." As a film, Sisu may as well be shorthand for John Wick meets Inglourious Basterds meets Django, the iconic 1966 spaghetti western that Quentin Tarantino riffed on with Django Unchained, too — plus all of that meets the work of legendary spaghetti western director Sergio Leone as well. The carnage is that balletic. The Nazi offings are that brutal, roguish and inventive. And valuing deeds over dialogue as a lone figure dispatches with nefarious forces against an unforgiving landscape, and no matter what they throw at him, is firmly the setup.
"He is one mean motherfucker that you don't want to mess with," the Nazis are told of Sisu's one-man death squad after they cross paths, the Germans think that their numbers will win out, and Aatami swiftly and savagely shows their folly. Of course, Helldorf and his underlings don't heed that advice. They're heading to Norway, destroying villages and also transporting a wagon filled with Finnish women they've taken captive, such as the spirited Aino (Mimosa Willamo, Memory of Water) — and the nihilistic Helldorf is soon fixated on the gold at any cost. That's a bad choice for the Nazis but great news for audiences. Enter: minefields proving deadly and also coming in handy, oh-so-many limbs going flying, the most grisly way to breathe underwater that's possibly been seen in cinema, taking the battle onto boats and planes, and Aatami continually demonstrating why he's earned such a fierce reputation. The latter doesn't take kindly to Nazis, as no one should, nor to being attacked, having his gold stolen and, like Keanu Reeves' best character of late, seeing his dog threatened.
Sisu writer/director Jalmari Helander also helmed dark festive action-comedy Rare Exports, giving seasonal flicks a memorably twisted spin. Then, although to much lesser success, he cast Samuel L Jackson (Secret Invasion) as a US President evading terrorists-slash-hunters in the woods in 2014's Big Game. Here, he knows which footsteps he's treading in — Mad Max: Fury Road also springs to mind in Sisu's staging, setting and elements of its story — and also how to make his film its own extravagantly bloody and entertaining spectacle. There's ticking boxes, and then there's colouring them in with your own hues and designs so that yes, they've been marked off but in your distinctive manner. Sisu works through everything that audiences think will happen, even winkingly signposting via named chapters splashed across the frame with western-esque font, and yet it's no mere exercise in lazily fulfilling a checklist.
Helander is too willing to get as OTT and pulpy as he can manage, to get as immersed in the film's playfully and gruesomely engrossing violence as he's able to, and to keep one-upping the creative and downright novel kills at Aatami's hands. In every case, he's giddily going for broke — and frequently getting in close via cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos (another Memory of Water alum). Sisu casts its solo hero against a sprawling setting that's oppressive in its immenseness in classic western style. The colour palette is colder, though; the feature surrounds Aatami with visible, inescapable, ever-present and grey-tinged desolation, as reality dictates of war movies. Helander paints this intense, grim and devastating big picture, while also seeing the gore and dirt and sweat intimately and intricately.
What would the John Wick franchise be without Reeves? Django without the great Franco Nero (who popped up in John Wick: Chapter 2) in his breakout role? A Fistful of Dollars and its sequels without Clint Eastwood (Cry Macho)? The question now: what would Sisu be without the irrepressible Tommila? Every single one of the films just mentioned boasts a sublime mix of perfectly chosen stars and directors doing their utmost — brothers-in-law Tommila and Helander among them. With so few words uttered, Tommila's physical performance has to convey everything. So, a stare screams with ferocity, a gaze at Aatami's dog bubbles with emotion and a twitch is never just a twitch. Watching silent protagonists dispensing with a constant onslaught of foes also gets audiences mirroring the characters, aka surveying the scene for even the slightest change or sign given that even the smallest details can alter so much.
As villains get slain again and again — and Aatami keeps weathering what's blasted his way — Sisu unleashes its barrage with weight. That isn't only because the atrocities of the Second World War should never be forgotten. All those lingering views of messy and madcap carnage? They don't just notice Aatami's actions, but show what he goes through as he persists and subsists. This is a film about survival as much as it's about payback. It has stakes and makes them plain, even as it's as blatant a good-versus-evil movie as they come. It's grounded in the past, stripped down to bangs and smacks and crunches that pack a visceral and emotional punch (smashes and crashes, too, with meticulous sound design that makes every pop and snap echo), and pulled off with cartoonish flair. Sisu is many things, just like the term itself in its native Finland — and impossible to stop watching is one of them.
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