A film review by Craig J. Koban June 7, 2023

RANK: #17

SISU jjj

2023, R, 91 mins.

Jorma Tommila as Aatami Korpi  /  Aksel Hennie as Bruno Helldorf  /  Jack Doolan as Wolf  /  Onni Tommila as Schütze  /  Mimosa Willamo as Aino

Written and directed by Jalmari Helander

SISU - as its opening title cards reveal - is a nearly untranslatable word, but can be best identified as one that implies unbreakable determination.     

This title is fitting.     

SISU is one of the great blunt force trauma action pictures of recent memory, one that juicily mixes the real historical horrors of World War II with the action hero pictures of the 1980s with a sensationalistic B-movie sensibility.  It has a deceptively simple-minded, but efficiently told story.  If you want to see a film about an aging, grizzled, but highly dangerous Finnish gold prospector that - at the tail end of WWII - mercilessly slaughters an endless stream of Nazis in the most barbaric manner possible...then...yup...SISU is just the film for you.  And this grumpy old Finnish man murders these evil Nazis (who wronged him) in the most fiendish, disgusting, and nightmarish ways possible.  Nazis are punched, kicked, shot, stabbed, disemboweled, exploded (my favorite), run over, and battered with many improvised weapons throughout this film's perfectly tuned and brisk 90-plus minutes.  If INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, FIRST BLOOD and JOHN WICK had a three way...SISU would be the end result.  

And, yes, this is a gloriously depraved, but gloriously entertaining pulp-inspired action film.  And considering that it only costs a reported $6 million to produce (relatively peanuts for the genre), SISU does so damn much with so very little resources at its disposal.     

Directed with swift confidence by Jalmari Helander, SISU thrusts viewers into Finland of 1944, during which time Nazi Germany began to employ a scorched earth policy towards this country and decided to essentially burn it down to the ground, mostly seeing that they could see defeat on the horizon (very sore losers in the making).  The film's opening sequence introduces us to the aforementioned prospector, the mostly mute (more on that later) Aatami Korpi (a perfectly cast Jorma Tommila), who scavenges what's left of the decimated Finnish countryside in search of gold.  His only companions are his horse and cute little dog (drumming up JOHN WICK-ian vibes, to be sure).  His daily grind is one of arduous monotony: He sifts through one stream after another for any hint of gold...and eventually finds some specks of it in one of his pans.  Excited by the prospect, he starts digging up the land nearby to find more, and he eventually hits a massive payload of deeply buried gold that's so bright that it illuminates his face like that mysterious opened briefcase in PULP FICTION all those years ago.  The aging and tired Aatami has the wide-eyed glow and smile of a child.  He realizes the magnitude of his discovery.  His prayers have been answered.  He's rich.  Good times are ahead.



Reality, unfortunately, settles in.  His nation is still in the grip of WWII and vile Nazis are still around to make life miserable for all they come in contact with.  Eventually, one particularly dreadful Nazi in Bruno (Aksel Hennie) emerges, a German captain who leads a ragtag squadron that just so happens to have their own treasure secured as well (not gold, but a bunch of enslaved Finnish women).  These Nazis unavoidably cross paths with Aatami and, uh huh, discover his gold stash that they want for their own, leading to a never-ending chase between both parties.  Bruno thinks killing such a seemingly old coot will be a breeze, but what he and his men don't initially realize is that Aatami ain't no ordinary old coot and prospector.  He's actually an ex-super soldier whose abilities to kill people are so unmatched that he was able to single-handedly murder over 300 Russian soldiers during the Winter War as revenge for them killing his wife and child.  As SISU's lean and mean story progresses, these Nazis slowly begin to see the error of their ways and discover that it's just so damn hard to kill this man, not to mention he's able to kill his pursuers one by one with the least amount of effort and in highly inventive ways.  In many respects, Aatami is engaging in his own scorched earth policy, dishing out poetic justice to Nazi scum.   

I've read some criticisms of SISU that it barely has a story.  That's much ado about nothing nitpick.  Like, say, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD before it (not heavy in the storytelling department either), the film has an unpretentiously modest, but awesome premise that's used as a clothesline to deliver one propulsively brutal action beat after another.  It's about a gold prospector looking for a better life that gets wronged by the wrong batch of Nazis...and then he goes blood thirsty on all of them.  That's it. That's the story.  It's minimal, yes, but it doesn't have other lofting aspirations beyond delivering on its enticing premise.  The movie world is full of genre exercises about unkillable military men trying to have lives of normalcy outside of war, but then are lured back in via nefarious forces, which sets off their animalistic instincts to deliver painful comeuppance to their enemies.  Director Helander has cited FIRST BLOOD as a piece of inspiration, which can be abundantly felt throughout SISU, albeit via a different historical lens.  Then there are dashes sprinkled in of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, lurid grindhouse war pictures, and the explosive violence of a Tarantino picture.  It's a wonderful pastiche of inspirations, to be sure, and SISU takes its core concept and just joyously swings for the fences with teeth and fist clenched tenacity.   

And man...does it ever deliver.

Aatami is a one-man slaughter house, to be sure, but he doesn't necessarily have an easy time with these Nazis.  He's hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned (sorry, most men would never win by bringing a horse to a tank fight), but that doesn't stop him from becoming the unstoppable aggressor as the film moves forward.  His initial murder of three of Bruno's men is done so ruthlessly and quickly that it catches the easy attention of the shocked captain, which leads to the chase to come.  That's not to say that Aatami never gets hurt in SISU.  Far from it.  He survives a dangerous trek against Nazi planted landmines (that he uses against them in nauseatingly explosive ways), not to mention that he survives multiple gun and knife wounds and even a hanging.  But Aatami survives all of these hellish tests of strength and resolve and comes out swinging with more feverous aggression.  And he's clever in how he decimates Nazis.  Just how clever?  Well, in one inspired sequence, he hides underwater to avoid capture, and when Nazi thugs go in to get him, he slices their throats open and slurps up the air bubbles that emanate from their throat wounds to breath longer underwater.  John Rambo would have blushed with envy at this feat.   

Aatami is in the great tradition of action heroes, in the sense that he has to endure one unspeakable ordeal after another from his attackers, only to keep picking himself up and disposing of those that want him dead, mostly to their astonishment.  Is Aatami an immortal superman or is he just that hard to kill?  As one character chimes in at one point, it's probably the latter.  He just won't die.  The near mid-60's Jorma Tommila looks like he was carved out of raw granite for this film.  His steely eyes and internalized rage do most of the talking throughout the film, and when Aatami explodes with fury and anger, it's a sight to behold.  And, as alluded to, he's like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name for how little he actually says in the film.  Actually...he never speaks until the final scene, and at this point it dawned on me what a superbly effective silent performance Tommila gives here, using body and facial language to communicate volumes that words may not have been better at.  And Aatami is a battle-hardened and world-weary man that has nothing to lose in the world because he has already lost everything...and he sure as hell isn't going to lose that gold.  This character is also obviously and nicely tied into a facet of history that doesn't get routinely explored in WWII pictures, that of the ravages of Nazi rule in Finland and how they just decided to burn it all when defeat was on the horizon.  SISU is a straightforward tale of revenge, yes, but there's a potent historical and nationalistic undercurrent to the film in the way that Finland has been bombed back to the Stone Age and how one of its natives decides to take on this invading Nazi horde all on his own.  That's heroic, patriotic, and damn ballsy.

I haven't mentioned how incredible this film looks for its dime store budget, and cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos paints the annihilated Finnish landscapes as if hell has erupted on earth.  Nearly every facet of civilization here has been blown to smithereens, and there's almost a painterly and apocalyptic beauty about how Helander frames Aatami desperately digging for gold in craters left by bombs.  The atmosphere in SISU is richly evocative and helps carry the picture alongside its action sequences.  Is SISU the heir apparent to JOHN WICK (which just recently concluded itself with its last entry)?  Like JOHN WICK, this film is thanklessly stylish, well acted, technically exemplary, and understands the value of framing action with wonderful clarity and precision.  And both are on equal footing, in my mind, when it comes to wickedly engineered and executed barbarism perpetrated by a lone force of nature.  SISU perhaps gets a bit too preposterous in its late stages when it comes to showing its Finnish warrior surviving implausible circumstances, but I was so bloody enraptured by everything that built up to this climax that I could hardly fault this film for its savage levels of nerve.  Best of all, SISU never wears out its welcome and wisely understands the value of its trim 91 minute running time.  It knows what it's delivering, how to deliver it, and when to end.  

Like gold, that's a priceless commodity these days.  

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