FILM REVIEW: SISU
Release Date: 26th May 2023
Directed by: Jalmari Helander
Cast: Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Mimosa Willamo
Written by: Jalmari Helander
Cinematography: Kjell Lagerroos
``a tight, lean, deliciously violent delight``
Jalmari Helander’s third movie is a Finnish western with Nazis. With chapter titles such as “The Minefield”, “Scorched Earth” and “Kill ‘Em All”, Sisu is a homage to 1970s action cinema that hitches its exploitation colours proudly to the mast. It’s a tight, lean, deliciously violent delight. In a nutshell, it’s 90 minutes-worth of Nazis getting killed off in the most gruesome, violent manner imaginable. What’s not to enjoy?
It’s 1944, in the Finnish region of Lapland during the endgame of World War II. The occupying Nazis are withdrawing into neighbouring Norway, leaving a trail of scorched earth devastation in their wake. Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) is a grizzled prospector, living a solitary existence panning for gold in the Lapland wilderness. He hits the motherlode and finds a vein of gold the size of a boulder. While transporting his haul back to civilisation, Korpi passes a large battalion of Nazis led by the thuggish SS colonel, Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie). Korpi passes the convoy without incident, but when a smaller group of Nazi stragglers find his gold, Korpi quickly and efficiently dispatches them. However, the fight has aroused the attention of Helldorf and his battalion. After investigating the commotion, he finds some of Korpi’s gold amongst the dead Nazis, and sets off in pursuit to kill Korpi and steal the gold for himself.
This, it turns out, is a mistake. During his days in the Finnish army, Korpi was the stuff of legend. He was a commando who killed hundreds of Communists in bloody revenge, and was known to the Russians as “The Immortal”. Korpi is a one-man killing machine, and Helldorf is about to underestimate him to his peril.
“Sisu” is a Finnish word that describes bravery, resilience and stoic determination – all qualities that fit Korpi perfectly. It’s this superhuman sense of grit that propels him head first from one impossible action sequence to the next, and gives him a near-immortal quality. In a role almost totally free of dialogue, Tommila gives a powerfully physical performance. To describe Korpi as taciturn is an understatement. He is a compelling character; occupying an undefined third space somewhere between hero and antihero.
Admittedly, there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen countless times before, but we’ve rarely seen it done quite so well. Helander takes the well-worn template of First Blood’s John Rambo (rather than Rambo II, III, IV or V) and passes it through the modern lens of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. Each successive act outdoes the action of the preceding one, and once things kick off, there is no let up. Helander doesn’t so much stretch credibility as rip it into tiny pieces and burn the remains. This is complete fantasy from start to finish. It takes no prisoners and makes no apologies. Sisu is a wild ride. You’re either in, or you’re out.
Although Sisu never tries to be remotely grounded in reality, Helander has opted to use physical stunts and practical effects wherever possible, lending the fantastical action a credibility that simply wouldn’t be there with overused CG effects. Cinematographer Kjell Lagerooos depicts the Finnish landscape alternately as a muddy, inhospitable wilderness or as a burning hellscape; a literal hell on earth. A suitable backdrop for this battle of wills perhaps, but Sisu probably won’t provide much of a boost to the Finnish Tourist Board.
It’s hard to talk about Sisu without using the “T” word. This is the sort of thing that that filmmaker could have made with a good editor and a producer that wasn’t afraid to say “no” to him when necessary. But the fact of the matter is that he hasn’t made anything close to this good in decades. There’s no wordy showboating in Sisu, just a lean efficiency that other filmmakers would do well to learn from.
Sisu is writer/director Helander’s most accomplished and satisfying movie by far, following the interesting but uneven horror Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale and the ropey Big Game. There is an uncommon vision and singularity of purpose here that is all too rare in the modern blockbuster. You can tell that no concessions were made, and this is exactly the movie that Helander wanted to make, without any changes or compromise, and that is truly extraordinary.