Ever since Quentin Tarantino made the Second World War “fun” again with Inglorious Basterds, I’ve been waiting for someone to come along to deliver a balls-to-the-wall, action flick that pits a string of disposable Nazis against an immovable object. Well, sing sweet providence and lay a blessing at the door of director Jalmari Helander, the man who gave us a feral Santa in Rare Exploits and Samuel L. Jackson as the U.S. president in Big Game, as he has gifted us with Sisu, a modern WWII movie utterly soaked war-sploitation glory.
Essentially a movie about an impossibly grizzled Finnish miner slaughtering his way through a batation of motley German soldiers, the film borrows liberally from the recent string of slick American actioners that sees a single protagonist wade their way through insurmountable odds, but the adding of a thick layer of Laplandian muck and an impressive adherence to the silent hero trope means that Sisu seems lemony fresh despite being coated in gore.
It’s the dying days of World War II and as the Nazis retreat back across Finland, they’re ordered to employ a scorched earth tactic, razing every town, village and living in their path. One such platoon is led by the cruel Bruno Helldorf who leads a company of thirty tired men and a handful of captured women, who all travel along the empty dirt roads with two trucks, a motorcycle and a bloody great tank to get the job done.
Elsewhere, we meet craggy prospector Aatami Korpi, a silent loner who is scouring this desolate landscape for gold along with his horse and his dog. After a cold, desolate search, the old dude actually manages to find a sizable deposit, excitedly carves it from the rock and loads his bounty into saddle bags and heads toward the nearest bank (wherever the hell that might be). As fate would predictably have it, Aatami and Helldorf as destined to literally cross paths, but the SS officer is initially disinterested in what seems to be a run down old duffer with ridiculous dreams of gold and is content to let a second group of soldiers pick up the slack further down the road. However, what those soldiers don’t realise is that Aatami is far more than his ratty appearance lets on and was once a feared Finnish comando who took out hundreds of Russiand during the Winter War and earned the nickname “Koschei”, or “Immortal” for his brutal efforts.
After dispatching the handful of Nazi upstarts in stunning fashion, Aatami and – more importantly – his haul of gold, find themselves on the SS Officer’s radar who figures a large pile of gold would be perfect to survive the iminent surrender of Germans and so a private war ensues between the desperate troops and a man who quite literally refuses to die. As blood, limbs and viscera starts to fly, will anyone manage to survive Aatami’s earth shaking will to win?
Christ, I hope not.
Featuring a script leaner than a fasting supermodel, some might find Sisu a little too simplistic for their tastes; but for everyone else, this could be the head stabbing, mine exploding, tank crushing highlight of 2023. An exhilarating ride with minimalist tendencies, there simply isn’t much else more satisfying than watching Nazi troopers get pulverised by a man who is harder to kill than the after burn of a particularly virulent vindaloo. Taking the basic, “unkillable dude” premise of the better action movies released in the last decade, the fact that the movie goes full exploitation with its wartime vibe makes it feel starkly original despite basically being “Johann Wick”.
I seriously can’t stress how much fun it is watching Nazis get mulched and at times you genuinely feel like you’re watching the best bits from an Indiana Jones film suddenly jacked up to an R rating. Trying to keep a straight face while a landmine is thrown like a frisbee to collide with a Nazi’s head is all but impossible and it’s to the movie’s credit that you’ll watch all these horrors unfold with a big, goofy grin on your face.
Matters are infinity aided by Helander’s choice to give things a stoic, almost Sergio Leone, quality to proceedings, which gives Sisu an incredibly cinematic tone. He also casts like Leone too, using the character of the lined faces of his actors to instinctually fill in the blanks that the space dialogue chooses to omit. The hollow-eyed glare of Aksel Hennie and Jack Doolan is as telling as their ragged uniforms or their guttural orders, as is the seething rage of Mimosa Willamo’s defiant captive – but its predictably Jorma Tommila’s near wordless portrayal of our unstoppable protagonist that truly seals the deal.
Coming to the fight armed with a survival instinct that makes the famously unkillable John Wick look like he has the mortality rate of a Haddonfield babysitter, Tommila brings a will of indomitable steel to his bearded loner. Boasting a patch work body of scars that makes his midsection look like a grotesque, topographical map of the Great Wall of China, the fact that Aatami is hard to render extinct than Daffy Duck almost ties with the heavy handed violence as the biggest earner of scoring peals of stupified laughter from its audience. However, other than shrugging off things that could keep an 80’s slasher down for the count, the actor gives us just enough to keep him as slightly more than a mysterious, Reich-smiting enigma with the odd facial expression or pause here or there that keeps things teetering barely on the right side of believable. Barely.
While Sisu plays the gritty, exploitation role right down to some Tarantino-esque chapters breaking up the story, it’s also savvy enough to employ some blockbuster style razzle dazzle to impressively up the ante for the suitably preposterous finale. Not only do we have our guy kicking off the final reel by trying to gain access to a tank with a pick axe, but the whole business involving a brawl inside a rattling plane makes certain that ends big and contains the most incredibly memorable use for a bomb youve probably seen in quite a while.
In a time when action blockbusters seem to demand sprawling casts and even bigger running times than threaten to last longer than your average Superbowl, Sisu is a vicious, contained and controlled action thriller who manages to go toe to toe with movies ten times its size and still manages to stride out of the wreckage with barely a scratch on it.
Small, perfectly formed and bloodier than a blender full of Nazis, Sisu takes the muddy wastes of the World War II movie and ratchets up the chaos to the heights of World War III. If it isn’t on your radar yet, you’d better enlist, pronto.
Great review! Sisu sounds like a thrilling and satisfying action movie with a unique wartime exploitation twist. Can’t wait to watch it!