Director: Jalmari Helander
Screenwriters: Jalmari Helander
Starring: Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Mimosa Willamo
When one thinks of the modern action film, it is almost impossible to understate the importance of John Wick in bringing about the modern one-versus-many zeitgeist. Numerous imitations have come out in its stead, including Atomic Blonde, Nobody, and The Villainess. Of course, this narrative draws upon its filmic history, such as the revisionist westerns of the 70s. 1992’s Oscar-winning The Unforgiven also springs to mind as a precursor to Wick. Jalmari Helander’s Sisu (2023) takes the modern action and the old western and fuses them together for a unique revisionist western set in Finnish Lapland during the Nazi invasion of 1944.
A retired commander and one-man death-squad, Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), has abandoned the war to find a simple life away from the chaos, and comes across a large strain of gold. When he and his gold are discovered by a travelling company of Nazi soldiers and their captives, it becomes a gauntlet assault, the SS commander (Aksel Hennie) and his troops hunting down the man and the gold. Korpi, ‘The Immortal’, brings out all the stops to take his revenge.
As stated, this is very much a Finnish Western. From a man on horseback fighting for gold, to the extreme wide shots of a desolate landscape, and even chapter titles appearing on screen in classic Western colours and fonts, the film wears its influences on its sleeve. And yet a bleak tone, extreme violence, and moments of gothic horror place it within the sphere of influence that contains writers such as Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road). It is a film very much unto its own, more a myth being retold than a film. It comes from oral tradition, and draws upon these spoken stories heavily in its plot, its writing, and its direction.
Jorma Tommila and Aksel Hennie put in wonderful performances as the hunted and hunter respectively, keeping everything stripped down and simple. Just a few lines of backstory, and everything else is kept for the screen. The direction of Jalmari Helander, is wonderfully simple for the most part, presenting everything through bold, striking images, with cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos painting everything in a moody, gothic gloom. It is a film as much about the atmosphere of the bleak Finnish landscape as the extravagant action, and it’s in these quieter moments that Sisu shines.
This is a simple movie about brutal people, and it has to be brutal in the same way. There’s plenty of blood and guts and limbs and moments of fingers in wounds to get people cringing. The bloodshed is excellently done, the makeup and prosthetics team have done a great job, and the rare moments of CGI are almost unnoticeable (there are one or two moments, such as a plane near the finale, which don’t quite escape the eye). The fight scenes are also mostly well executed, though there are some dodgy close-up choices in the edit that seem to be in there purely to give a sense of combat, without showing anything at all.
Additionally, Sisu demands a larger than usual suspension of disbelief for it to work. Like most films of this kind, the character should have been dead 500 times yet keeps going, because, as stated in the text by Aina (Mimosa Willamo), ‘He just refuses to die.’ We can, of course, only stretch this idea so far before we start calling a film out. It is possible to let it slide; after all, John Wick, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Ethan Hunt, and other action heroes, should have been dead halfway through their first film. Yet, the incredibly serious nature of this particular film puts this suspension of disbelief at risk at times. With something like Indiana Jones, there are enough moments of humour to know that its 1940s matinee serial inspirations allow the character to overcome the odds at all costs, because that’s the genre it operates in. With Sisu, it’s all blood and grit, and there are, amidst the plethora of great moments, a few where one has to chuckle at the ridiculous nature of it.
The overwhelming feeling from Sisu is that it is a traditional film in a traditional sense. Most things are stripped back and simple, the filmmakers telling a bloody tale for the sake of a bloody tale. The images are arresting, the action mostly well done, the acting great, and it all comes together to create an enticing tale of a (fictional) legendary figure living up to their name. It’s an action-based urban legend Western, and a great time at the movies.