REVIEW: Sisu (2023, dir. Jalmari Helander)

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 91 mins

UK Distributor: Sony

WHO’S IN SISU?

Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Mimosa Willamo, Onni Tommila, Arttu Kapulainen

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Jalmari Helander (director, writer), Petri Jokiranta (producer), Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä (composers), Kjell Lagerroos (cinematographer), Juho Virolainen (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1944 Lapland, a prospector (Tommila) takes on the Nazis that stole his gold…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON SISU?

The first question you may be asking yourself is, “what even is a Sisu, and why is it being used to describe this seemingly unrelated movie?” Handily, mere seconds into writer-director Jalmari Helander’s historical action-thriller, on-screen text informs the viewer that it describes an unwavering bravery and stoic determination in a person, but that there is no direct English translation from its Finnish origins. Upon further research, “Sisu” appears to be a word that also has deep resonance within Finland’s culture, to where it’s often described as the country’s favourite word, as well as within its history, as far back as hundreds of years and becoming especially prominent during the country’s perseverance in wartime.

All of that weight and complexity for a word that there doesn’t even appear to be an English equivalent for – but luckily, it’s the only thing about Helander’s film that didn’t translate, because everything else about this fiercely entertaining film is as universal as they come.

The film is set in 1944, as the Nazis are on their way out of Finland due to a treaty that’s been struck up with the Soviet Union, but just to be dicks (well, more than they already were) they’re leaving tons of destruction in their retreat. Initially, though, the action takes place far away from the battlefield, and within the vast wilderness of Lapland, where a seemingly rugged prospector named Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) spends his days mining for gold. Eventually, he strikes a rich deposit of the stuff deep underneath the ground, and acquires some nuggets from it to take back to town and cash in. On the way, he comes across a Nazi platoon, led by SS commander Bruno (Aksel Hennie), who attempt to take Korpi’s gold from him and fund new lives for themselves after the war ends.

So, they execute him and leave rich, right? Oh, how wrong you’d be, for Korpi is no mere prospector: he’s a retired commando, one who’s gained a serious reputation within the Finnish army for essentially being a one-man death squad who simply refuses to die, no matter what seemingly conclusive things may happen to him. And, as you can imagine, he’s not about to allow his precious gold to fall into the wrong hands, igniting a brutal and heavily violent crusade against each and every Nazi he can find, which makes up most of the rest of the movie.

Those who can’t handle Tarantino levels of hyper-stylised gore and badassery might not find this especially appealing, but thankfully for the rest of us Sisu is a ferocious ninety minutes of pure carnage that rarely lets up. You can expect bullets unloading into chests, knives to the skull, underwater throat-slitting, hangings, exploding bodies with limbs flying everywhere, people being set on fire and run over by tanks, and something to do with a landmine that I dare not give away here. It is pure insanity to witness, often to where you’re actively gasping at certain moments of sudden violence because not only does it look like it really hurts, but many of the effects are also impressive enough to convince you that it really, really hurts.

However, there is a calm consideration to Helander’s over-the-top display, with the filmmaker – previously known for dark festive comedy Rare Exports and throwback action flick Big Game – choosing his moments of extreme carnage wisely, allowing the protagonist, the viewer, and even the villains some much-needed breathing space in between all the brutality. The film avoids becoming overly gratuitous as a result, settling for a well-balanced mix of action and suspense, as you do genuinely root for this main character as he slashes and maims his way to getting his precious gold back, which he seems to value as much as John Wick does his dog.

The film even being quite a remarkable bit of visual storytelling when one looks beyond the brutal violence, with hardly being any dialogue for at least the first twenty minutes, while Jorma Tommila’s protagonist says almost nothing for the entirety of the movie. Yet, you pick up on so much about these characters, their goals, their emotions, and aspects of their backstories just from watching these performances and how Helander frames his scenes, with exposition only filling in the blanks when it needs to. It’s enough to where you could legitimately envision this as a silent film, albeit one with far more exploding horses and stabbings than your average Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton picture, since it is incredibly apt as an action movie that doesn’t require actual words to tell its story (although it is a very simple and straightforward script, so it isn’t as though the story needed words to convey it in the first place).

Its simplicity is hardly a bad thing, as it keeps the plot from getting too convoluted or distracted from its ultimate purpose, though at times you do wish that just a little bit more information was drip-fed, just to explain certain things. For instance, the Nazis have captured a group of women and are holding onto them throughout the movie; who these women are, what the enemy wants from them, and why they simply haven’t been shot dead yet are all things that Helander keeps a bit too vague, except to give them some cool moments later on in the film. There are also times when you start to wonder just how invincible the protagonist actually is, since he appears to survive so much that would kill a regular person, which in a way is the point being made since he is supposed to be someone who constantly avoids death, but even then there are limits to how far the viewer may be willing to go with accepting his apparent invincibility.

Minor qualms aside, Sisu is a thrilling ride, one that carries enough action to satisfy the most blood-hungry of viewers as well as some strong visual prominence that neatly gives it some surprising gravitas. You’ll come for the satisfying violence against Nazis, but you’ll stay for its compelling filmmaking, which should make it a strong new addition to most people’s action movie collection.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Sisu is a fiercely entertaining historical action-thriller that delivers plenty of strong and awe-inspiring violence, but filmmaker Jalmari Helander avoids things becoming too gratuitous with a formidable display of visual storytelling that conveys plot and emotion with hardly any dialogue, making it a fun and thoughtful action-packed experience.

Sisu is showing in cinemas nationwide from Friday 26th May 2023

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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