Sisu (Finland, 2022)

April 27, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sisu Poster

Sisu is one of those unheralded films that comes seemingly out of nowhere to grab the adventurous movie-goer by the throat. For a perfectly-pitched 90 minutes, it glories in the excesses of gore and violence with an exuberance rarely experienced this side of Quentin Tarantino. Sisu is an action movie and a period piece set in the wilderness of Lapland but, most of all, it’s an excuse to see an improbable hero do unspeakable things to a platoon of Nazis.

The time period is late 1944. With World War II coming to a close and a German loss seemingly inevitable, the Nazis have begun to retreat, employing a scorched earth policy in their withdrawal from Lapland. Destroying settlements and taking (female) captives, a platoon led by SS officer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie) and his second-in-command, Wolf (Jack Doolan), initially ignore the seemingly harmless old man they pass along the way. But when they learn that Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) is a miner carrying a rich amount of gold nuggets in his packs, they change their minds. Their goal is simple: kill Aatami and take his treasure. But this isn’t an ordinary gold miner. During the Winter War, he earned the nickname of Koschei (“The Immortal”) and was credited with hundreds of kills. When the Nazis make an enemy out of him, they are unprepared for what that means.

Outside of a very dark sense of humor to go along with the Grand Guignol approach to wartime eviscerations, there’s not a whole lot more to this than the simple pleasure of watching this seemingly indestructible Finnish superhero kill Nazis. The plot is about as minimal as the import of the supporting characters. If there’s one complaint to be made, it’s that the chief SS goon isn’t quite as evil as he might be. In truth, Helldorf is somewhat bland – the bespectacled Gestapo major in Raiders of the Lost Ark was far more intimidating. But Sisu makes up for any individual deficiencies by the impressive body count.

Although Aatami is a “superhero” by any definition of the term, he won’t be next in line to join The Avengers. That’s because, unlike the milquetoast heroes of the MCU, Aatami believes that a dead bad guy is the best bad guy. Even the most amoral of the traditional superheroes aren’t this fond of carnage. As for Aatami’s “superpowers”… he certainly seems to be indestructible – after being blown up, shot, hanged, and having a variety of other unpleasantries visited upon him, he still keeps going. One character surmises that he’s not really immortal but simply refuses to die. When it comes to his offensive capabilities, let’s just say that John Wick would approve. (Speaking of which, Sisu would make a good double feature with John Wick, which is also distributed by Lionsgate.)

The movie probably won’t be seen by enough people to make Jorma Tommila a household name, but he will most certainly become a cult figure as a result of his starring role. The 63-year-old Finnish actor, who started his career in the 1980s as a controversial theater performer before transitioning to film, has never had anything close to an international breakout success. Therefore, this role will define him and, if stereotyping is to follow, it’s not a bad late-in-life career niche. He is perfectly cast – a mix of machismo, world-weariness, and determination. He’s a man of few words – in fact, he has nary a line of dialogue to speak for most of the film.

Wikipedia describes “sisu” as “a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness…It is generally considered not to have a literal equivalent in English.” A caption at the beginning of the movie defines it similarly. It comes to represent Aatami’s “superpower.”

According to writer/director Jalmari Helander, an inspiration for Sisu was the original First Blood and it’s not hard to see the connection. John Rambo was a hunted-turned-hunter anti-hero and, although far less murderous in his means, he nevertheless solicited audience sympathy by dispatching loathsome individuals. The key to Sisu’s effectiveness is that viewers have to identify with Aatami in order to make his brutal, gruesome journey enjoyable.

If brevity is the soul of wit, it’s also a key to a movie of this sort. Unlike the lugubrious, will-it-ever-end fourth installment of the John Wick series, Sisu knows when to call it quits. By not dragging things out or overstaying its welcome, it becomes a perfectly portioned cinematic meal. Okay, it’s junk food, but junk food is often tastier than haute cuisine and this is one movie I’d encourage seeking out for the explosive and exciting tastes it delivers.

Sisu (Finland, 2022)

Director: Jalmari Helander
Cast: Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan
Screenplay: Jalmari Helander
Cinematography: Kjell Lagerroos
Music: Juri Seppa, Tuomas Wainola
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2023-04-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore)
Genre: Action/Thriller
Subtitles: In English and Finnish with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1