Written and directed by Jalmari Helander.
Starring Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Onni Tommila, and Mimosa Willamo.
When an ex-soldier who discovers gold in the Lapland wilderness tries to take the loot into the city, Nazi soldiers led by a brutal SS officer battle him.
Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports, Big Game) returns with his first feature in almost a decade; a basic-assembly revenge romp that nevertheless dishes up a tight 91 minutes of Nazis being brutalised by a near-unstoppable merchant of death.
The predominantly English-language Sisu opens with text explaining the meaning of its title, “sisu” being the unquantifiable courage and determination which can manifest within a person when all hope is lost. After this, Helander drops us into Lapland during a late phase of World War II, where war veteran Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) pans for gold with his horse and adorable fluff-ball of a dog in tow. Before long, however, Aatami is assailed by a 30-strong Nazi death squad, who wish to take possession of his gold for their own ends.
What the Nazis – led by the vicious SS Commander Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie) initially fail to appreciate, however, is that they’re not dealing with any regular Finnish gold prospector, but a nomadic war vet with over 300 Russian kills to his name, whose mythic lethality and sheer refusal to die have earned him the nickname “koschei,” meaning “immortal.”
Sisu doesn’t care to disguise its myriad obvious filmmaking influences but rather embraces how much of a pastiche it is; the low-key bastard child of Quentin Tarantino’s own spaghetti western homages, cross-bred with the road movie canter of Mad Max: Fury Road, outnumbered vet vibes of First Blood, and all-around vengeful badassery of John Wick, complete with an imperiled dog.
But in the early going, Helander’s film is far more quiet than its cheeky marketing suggests. A large chunk of Sisu‘s first act is near-free of dialogue as Aatami goes about his day, enough that you might suspect you’ve been duped into watching something decidedly less action-packed than implied by the whizz-bang trailer.
This is in part because Aatami is effectively a mute protagonist, with almost all of the dialogue being spoken by either the Nazis or the caravan of Finnish women they’ve taken prisoner. Yet if Sisu is admittedly a little slow to start despite its brief runtime, as its surprising quietness bristles up against the expectations of a Tarantino-esque splatter-fest, things pick up massively once the Nazis start bothering our hero.
Ultimately few are likely to be left complaining that this film doesn’t contain enough bloody mayhem; bodies explode, get melted by artillery, and run over by tanks, while crania are readily obliterated. As you can probably guess, it’s the Nazis who do the dying – there wouldn’t be much of a movie otherwise – while staring down a Terminator-like force of nature whose allergy to death dips a toe into quasi-supernatural territory. Sure, Aatami is hurt in numerous gnarly ways throughout his journey, yet these injuries appear to be mere minor setbacks to a man seemingly put on this Earth to put bad guys in the ground as nastily as possible.
If most of the action is gleefully violent, it skirts clear of the more heightened quality of Helander’s two prior films until its delirious high-wire finale, where it gets perilously close to going full Looney Tunes, complete with some undeniably dodgy VFX, albeit never without assuring the audience it’s absolutely in on the joke. For a picture produced for a modest €6 million, the sheer gusto to go there is laudable.
To reiterate, Sisu isn’t a film that takes itself particularly seriously; it’s of course inherently ridiculous that our man can withstand so much punishment, but Helander’s picture isn’t so much a historical document as it is a pulpy graphic novel brought to life. And yet, surprisingly, the script is actually an entirely original creation from Helander, peppered with generous spicings of deadpan comic relief which even out the tone and make it somewhat easier to hand-wave how much the narrative relies on the Nazis’ head-smacking stupidity.
To that end, this isn’t a film to seek out for a nuanced story or characters; what passes for a plot here is largely doled out visually, while Aatami’s own past is reeled off by the Nazis in one breezy expository mid-film dialogue. The aforementioned female prisoners also don’t get much in the way of development, feeling more-or-less like props until the third act, though when they’re finally roped into the Nazi-slaughtering action, it’s most certainly worth the wait.
It is a fundamentally basic but admirably efficient piece of work, largely repeating a cat-and-mouse formula yet constantly changing-up the circumstances and venue of the various engagements such that it never gets boring. Helander keeps us merrily shepherded from one brutal set-piece to the next, while introducing a few savagely unexpected hurdles along the hero’s quest.
This formula might’ve faltered somewhat if not for the strong central performances. As our grizzled protagonist, Jorma Tommila brings physical plausibility to a fundamentally impossible individual – a wartime riff on The Man with No Name who just wants to reclaim his gold and get on with his life. On the other side, Aksel Hennie brings a canny combination of menace and perverse humour to the role of Nazi leader Helldorf, who becomes increasingly pissed off at his foe’s continued survival and willingly keeps throwing his own reluctant men at the problem. There’s also some unexpected nuance to Helldorf, though, who plainly acknowledges that the war is lost and a noose is waiting for him back home, but believes that Aatami’s gold is likely his only means of escaping the gallows.
On a technical level, Helander has produced a handsome film on a svelte price tag, aided by DP Kjell Lagerroos’ lensing of the bleakly beautiful Lapland landscapes. This is supported by punchy sound design during the film’s many skirmishes, and Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä’s moody musical score, vaulting between twangy, spaghetti western-homaging guitar licks and legitimately haunting choral wailing.
Helander makes a strong argument here that a movie being fun and well-made is ultimately more important than narrative intricacy. In terms of story and characters Sisu offers little more than the meat-and-potatoes basics, but is energised by entertainingly gory action, a dark sense of humour, and knowing performances from its cast.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.