Jalmari Helander’s answer to Rambo: First Blood arrives in cinemas with Sisu, a rip-roaring spectacle of deliriously gritty proportions. Helander is no stranger to raw entertainment; his previous films, Big Game and Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, are both. Sisu might be his best film yet. Its combination of ridiculous fun with genuinely compelling themes is a mixture few filmmakers can pull off successfully, yet Helander does so with flying colours. It is a tenacious action picture with as much fervour and joy as it has pools of blood.
Set to the backdrop of 1944’s Lapland War – when Nazi Germany retaliated against Finland in the aftermath of the Finnish withdrawing its support for the Nazis – we are introduced to lone prospector Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila). He is travelling the barren, war scorched Lapland in search of gold. During his search he runs into trouble in the form of a large Nazi death squadron, led by the opportunistic Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie). The vicious band of fascists are fleeing Finland, but they decide to rob Korpi on their way out. But there’s one thing they didn’t factor in – Korpi is a retired commando infamous for his lack of discipline and borderline superhuman resolve. These Nazis have mugged the wrong person.
There is an interesting duality to Susi that makes it such an engrossing watch. On the one hand it is an unashamedly chaotic action war-piece whose main selling point is an old man butchering dozens of Nazis. Need I say more? Yet there is a quiet melancholy underneath the carnage. Much of the story is set on a landscape that has been eviscerated and devastated by the evils of Nazism and the consequences of war. Kjell Lagerroos’ cinematography, and especially his use of wide shots in barren landscapes captures this grand emptiness that reflects the inner emptiness of the characters, all of whom are, in some ways, reeling from the ruin of war.
Korpi is a character so gritty and hardened by the consequences of the war that he says almost nothing throughout the film. His character is called immortal due to his ferocious abilities and refusal to succumb to his increasingly graphic injuries, yet he is very much human. Korpi’s expressions mostly consist of sneers and snarls, tinged with a hidden sadness for what he has lost. Tommila is excellent at harbouring a sense of history within this character almost entirely through facial expression and deliberate action. While he holds the stoicness and intimidation factor reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, there is a tragedy to him that is more akin to John Rambo – a sadness that isn’t necessarily quelled by his isolating actions and violent capacities but, if anything, enhances them. He cannot change what war has made him, no more than he can reverse what it has taken from him. The same sympathy is, rightfully, not extended to the Nazi characters, especially that of Helldorf. Hennie gives a deliciously wicked performance as a greedy man who will burn down anything and anyone he can’t have.
What makes Sisu such a great film is that it has all of this heavy thematic power on its mind – yet it still largely has fun with itself. It’s the prime example of a film that’s ridiculously entertaining on a surface level, but becomes more rewarding the more you dwell on it. The craftsmanship in delivering its gory tension and thrills is on point. Lagerroos’ cinematography and Helander’s direction unifying to create immaculate setpieces dripping with suspense, inducing cheers and squirms alike as Korpi defies the thresholds of pain and the limits of the human body to overcome his injuries and settle his score with Helldorf and his death squadron. Select setpieces include a nail-biting sequence on a minefield, a chase scene with fisticuffs across multiple vehicles in a manner akin to a graphic Indiana Jones movie, and even an underwater fight where the dark lighting and muted sound design traps the audience in a figurative vice grip.
Sisu is a film that is unafraid to be be playful with its own premise, delivering on the delights that come with Rambo-esque gore. But this does not come at the expense of its compelling themes on violence and the the metamorphosis of people in war. The latter theme even has a touch of feminism ingrained within, as the few female characters of the film, led by Aino (Mimosa Willamo), eventually take up their own active role in tandem with Korpi. It might not be for the easily squeamish, and there is a degree of suspending your disbelief in places, but when your action is this visually visceral and kinetically intense – all coming in at a 90 minute runtime that flies by – it’s easy to ask “who cares”?
Helander supposedly based Korpi’s character on the infamous Simo Hayha, a Finnish sniper nicknamed The White Death. A World War Two veteran with over 500 confirmed kills during the Winter War, Hayha is often regarded as the deadliest sniper in history. Hayha should be glad he never came across Korpi and his embodiment of the film’s title – Sisu, a Finnish expression with no direct English translation. It roughly translates to mean hardiness, bravery, or unrelenting determination. Frankly, one would be hard pressed to find a better term to encapsulate the harrowing themes but exciting popcorn thrills of this excellent movie.
Sisu is in cinemas from May 26th
Director: Jalmari Helander
Writer: Jalmari Helander
Starring: Jorma Tommali, Askel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Mimosa Willamo
Runtime: 91 minutes