Jalmari Helander’s Sisu is a lean piece of filmmaking with a simple pitch: a one-man army violently dispatches a handful of Nazis at the tail-end of the second World War. Opening narration clues the audience into the film’s historical context, briefly describing the Nazis’ 1944 scorched-earth campaign in northern Finland, before the film zeroes in on a stoic, grizzled gold digger in the middle of a now-empty country. Later, we’ll learn that this man, Korpi, is an ex-commando responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Russians in the Soviet-Finnish War, an unstoppable killing machine so driven by revenge that he refuses to die. But his silent introduction renders later introduction superfluous. He’s well-armed, not just with his pick-ax, but knives and a rifle, too. His search for gold in the dirt of this wasteland clues into a singular drive. In the shower, the camera scans his body and lingers on deep, wide scars, clear indications of long campaigns of violence. And like any movie badass worth his salt nowadays, he’s accompanied by a very cute puppy. Anyone who has seen a movie could tell you Korpi is obviously a man you simply do not mess with.
But a caravan of Nazis does just that, discovering Korpi — to them, he’s just a Finnish man on a horse — soon after he has struck a large sum of gold, and immediately messing with him. The film follows from there as the squad of Nazis hunts down the seemingly unkillable Korpi, both for his gold and revenge for what he keeps doing to their squadmates. This smorgasbord of violence includes stabbing a knife through a Nazi’s skull, shooting an MP-40 through another’s chin, chucking a landmine at a Nazi’s face, and much more. The pleasure of Sisu is in watching the bodies of deeply evil men explode into some nifty gore effects, a display of the type of carnage it’s nearly impossible to feel morally guilty about. Every mutilated bad guy in Sisu has it coming.
Though that description might immediately recall John Wick, and later sections involving a crew of female prisoners Korpi frees and makes allies of invite comparisons to Fury Road (both of which some critics have been happy to indulge), comparing Sisu to either film is both inaccurate and a disservice. While Helander’s craft is sturdy, and he takes care to create a few painterly images, it’s far from the virtuosic intensity of Miller’s film or the cleanly shot, nonstop kinetic action of Stahelski’s work. It’s not trying to be either, though. Instead, Sisu is a throwback in the mold of old-school revenge exploitation movies. Korpi’s violent acts don’t involve choreographed mayhem or athletic stunt work — they simply imagine an especially violent, gory way to kill an enemy in 1944 and then execute on the idea with effects work. It’s a method truly befitting its protagonist, who is less like Mad Max or John Wick than he is like a villain from an ‘80s slasher. He’s silent, seemingly magically immortal, and lying in wait for his enemies to come across his path. And like so many of those slashers, Korpi is less out for revenge than unfortunately stumbled upon. With an adjustment of tone and a more likable set of victims, it’s easy to imagine Sisu playing as a horror film.
While it only runs 91 minutes and does feature plenty of Nazi-killing, Sisu is imbued with the surprising virtue of patience. Herlander has made a structurally sound movie that moves at a measured rhythm, allowing for room to breathe and reset in between the setpieces. It’s a confident approach, and one that is sorely lacking in much modern action cinema, but it also lays bare and exacerbates the film’s thinness. While Korpi has a legend behind him, and Jorma Tommila does an admirable job filling out the character physically, there’s not much else to him than that materiality. This is true of every character in the movie. which has the unfortunate side effect of making the film’s thinly sketched women come off as mere devices, existing to be tortured by Nazis and freed by Korpi before taking their own revenge. That Sisu is so simple is certainly part of its appeal, and it’s entertaining to watch something this unburdened by the weight of any psychology whatsoever. But it’s also a necessarily limiting approach. There is room for more in Sisu, which leaves the film sometimes feeling slight instead of succinct. It offers an exciting time nonetheless, but one that begins to evaporate almost as soon as it ends.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 17.