The Plot: Lapland, 1944. With the tide of war turning against the Germans, they’re in retreat but adopting a scorched earth policy as a cruel reminder. Aatami (Jorma Tommila) runs into them on horseback but officer Bruno (Aksel Hennie) and his troops, with a truck of Finnish women in tow, decide not to take any action. Aatami is heading into a minefield anyway, but he has something to keep him motivated. He’s just dug up a pile of gold nuggets and is heading to the nearest bank – hundreds of kilometres away. When Bruno gets wind of this, he disobeys his orders and sends his troops after Aatami to retrieve the gold. Big mistake…
The Verdict: It’s sadly not always the case, but sometimes a film comes along that lives up to exactly what the trailer promised… and then goes beyond it to become a future cult classic. On the other hand, maybe it’s already a cult classic and doesn’t need time and delayed recognition to prove its worth. Sisu is very much that film, a rip-roaring wartime action film that doesn’t mess about and gets down to business straight away. The killin’ Nazi business… and business is booming with the explosive impact of a grizzled old Finnish man taking on the enemy on his home turf – one spectacular kill at a time, sometimes several in one go. He’s not just anybody though. He has sisu – a word that can’t be translated but basically comes down to gut determination and a resilient will to live when all hope is lost. Aatami is more than he seems and is no stranger to death dealing.
Writer/director Jalmari Helander has form in this kind of offbeat but entertaining genre film with broader international appeal, having made Rare Exports and Big Game. Sisu is something of a step up though, taking a B-movie concept featuring a one-man army against cinema’s ultimate bad guys, nasty Nazis, and then elevating it into something more unique and distinctive. His script is remarkably lean and stripped of any unnecessary padding, with just enough backstory to make Aatami a near-legendary character – feared and respected by anyone who comes across him and lives to tell the tale. Even Bruno comes to admire Aatami’s sisu. Filming mostly in English, Helander only uses whatever dialogue is necessary to move the story forward. Instead, he concentrates on a series of obstacles and confrontations between the two opposing forces, divided into chapters which come up in big gold letters with a western twang in the music. There’s more than a touch of a revenge western to this film.
Helander films these bloody confrontations against the desolate beauty of the Finnish landscape. Aatami has to be resourceful and inventive to survive in this harsh environment with only his sisu and his dog (Tommila’s actual dog, for authentic chemistry) to keep him going. The action in the film is both outrageous and agreeably amusing – landmines go flying in the air along with the resultant body parts and Helander pulls no punches in depicting the Germans as unrepentant bad guys worthy of a gruesome dispatch. They’re not stupid though and there’s an equal look of steely determination in Aksel Hennie’s performance as Bruno. Helander does push a little bit at the laws of physics and just how much pain Aatami can take before it becomes implausible. However, it’s done in such a knowingly smart way that those implausibilities can be set aside for the gloriously staged, breathless action that doesn’t let up.
If only Hollywood’s often overstuffed action films had such lean precision and attention to the small details blown up (literally) on the big screen for maximum visual and aural impact. Sisu is as much an experience as it is a film. It should deservedly find a wider audience as an explosive, well-made genre film that knows exactly what it is and runs with it across the minefield to a triumphant finish line.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Explosive
Directed by Jalmari Helander.
Starring Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Mimosa Willamo.