Sometimes a film is exactly what you think it’s about. As far as I can tell, there is no deeper meaning to Jalmari Helander’s Sisu. The Finnish film is based on some historical fact, but there’s no doubt of its intention to provide a lean 90 minutes of extraordinarily gory Nazi killing. Completely stripped of characterization or needless backstories, Sisu is mainly free of dialogue, especially from the lead character. It combines John Wick, Mad Max: Fury Road, First Blood, Taken, Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy, and Inglourious Basterds. If you like those movies, I don’t see why you won’t like this. Despite the grim history involved, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a straight-up story of good vs. evil. Or, in this case, badass vs evil.
Sisu stars 64-year-old actor Jorma Tommila in what can best be described as a breakout performance. He plays Aatami Korpi, a prospector and war veteran who, late in 1944, is in Finland mining for gold. It turns out he strikes pay dirt, and after an exceptionally, There Will Be Blood-type opening, Korpi has his gold and his dog (a John Wick reference, no doubt) set back for the dangerous journey home. On the way, though, he encounters a band of cruel Nazis led by Bruno Helldorf, played by Aksel Hennie. At first, the Nazis and their Finnish female captives (kept in a truck much like the females of Mad Max: Fury Road) pay Korpi no mind, but they eventually discover he has loot, and it’s Korpi vs. a 30-man Nazi unit. Unbeknownst to the Nazis, Korpi was a skilled fighter during the Winter War nicknamed Koschei, meaning “The Immortal,” in one of the few stretches of dialogue we get, expository describing Korpi’s legend.
Helander is known for his unique style and blending of genres in his movies. His two credits previous to Sisu are Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), which received positive reviews for its original approach to the Christmas holiday and its mix of horror, fantasy, and dark comedy elements, and Big Game starring Samuel L. Jackson as POTUS who gets shot down over Finland. For the most part, he balances the humor and action gore well. Like most competent filmmakers, he loves cinema and cinema history. In particular, he cites Rambo: First Blood as his influence on Sisu. Helander and his cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos capture the harsh landscape nicely. The action is well done, and the film feels very lived in.
Sisu is a Finnish word often translated as perseverance, grit, or determination. It refers to inner strength, resilience, and bravery that allow a person to overcome adversity, persists in facing challenges, and keep going even when things get tough. Sisu is considered a cultural characteristic of Finland and is often associated with the country’s national identity. Many Finns are proud of their country defending the invading Soviet forces. Finland’s involvement in World War II was complicated, and its relationship with Nazi Germany remains controversial. However, Finland maintained its independence and sovereignty throughout the war, despite its considerable challenges. In a way, Korpi represents Finland’s independence—a one-man army against a bunch of Nazi goons.
Still, Sisu has no grand ambitions of being a history lesson, just 90 minutes of ridiculous violence against Nazis, and it delivers. You might roll your eyes several times, but also you’ll genuinely chuckle as well. The ending is also extremely satisfying.