- Great action
- Quick runtime, no fluff
- Terrific throwback vibe of 80s/90s action films
- More style than substance
- Kills may be too gory for most moviegoers
- Typical action hero
With more style than substance, director Jalmari Helander brings forth a wild, fun action ride in “Sisu”.
During the last desperate days of WWII, a solitary prospector (Jorma Tommila) crosses paths with Nazis on a scorched-earth retreat in northern Finland. When the Nazis steal his gold, they quickly discover that they have just tangled with no ordinary miner. While there is no direct translation for the Finnish word “sisu”, this legendary ex-commando will embody what sisu means: a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination in the face of overwhelming odds. And no matter what the Nazis throw at him, the one-man death squad will go to outrageous lengths to get his gold back – even if it means killing every last Nazi in his path.
Finnish writer/director Jalmari Helander has an affinity for great 80s-90s’ action films. In the beginning of his newest film “Sisu”, we hear a Don LaFontaine-adjacent voice of a narrator introducing our fearless protagonist with a “One man…one mission” level of importance (hysterical, being that we never hear this narrator again for the rest of the film). This throwback vibe of badass “one man, one army” action films is what gives director Helander his charm, this also being the main reason why his last film, 2014’s “Big Game”, was such a fun ride. “Sisu” begins in the tail end of WWII in 1940s Finland – the protagonist Aatami (Jorma Tommila) is a retired vet, tired by war and living alone as a solitary prospector. Whilst digging he makes a discovery of gold and sets off across a scorched Finland to claim his newfound riches. The only thing standing between him and his destination are Nazis torching and destroying everything in their path. Now, the once feared killing machine must do what he does best and kill his way to his destination. My quick synopsis alone should let you know, without question, just what kind of film this is.
“Sisu” doesn’t rely on too much dialogue to exhibit its bloody fun ride. Within the first 10 minutes alone, we’re just stuck with our wordless protagonist who just gives one loud scream as part of his dialogue contribution. Indeed, Tommila’s great stoic performance is reliant solely on facial expressions and great action choreography (what else do you need?). The film leaves the talking to everyone else – including the head of the Nazis, the evil Bruno (Aksel Hennie). As the Nazis try to hunt down and kill Aatami (and vice-versa), Hennie gives a great performance of a man that is just tired and wants all this war nonsense to end. He’s the perfect foil to Aatami – while Aatami is tired of killing because he wants to live, Bruno is just tired of killing because he’s tired. He’s curt and mean, but he’s slowly getting tired of being curt and mean. That’s why his incredulous response to Aatami’s tenacity creates great moments of dark comedy. One of which being a minefield sequence where he repeatedly sends men to walk through a cloud of smoke to kill Aatami – and each one of them being blown up by mines thrown or placed in their direction by the wordless hero. Another nice placement of casting here is Mimosa Willamo’s performance of “Aino”, a Finnish woman captured by the Nazis who is determined to set her and other female prisoners free. With the short amount of time she has on screen, she carries enough grit and courage to hold her own against Tommila and Hennie.
Director Helander wears his influences on his sleeve. From the Don LaFontaine-like narration in the beginning to the Tarantino-like chapter titles to the extreme war violence akin to the Rambo films, all of the glory of 80s and 90s action films are on display here. Aatami as a character himself is a culmination of the laconic John Wick, the crazy Mad Max, the no-mercy John Rambo and a dash of the amnesiac Jason Bourne. He’s lean, resourceful and to an almost comedic extent, he just doesn’t quit. The film moves at a brisk 90 minutes and doesn’t leave room for fluff. However, with all the nicely set action, dark humor and fast pacing…there isn’t much about “Sisu” that makes it a gamechanger. It’s bloody, fun and hits the spot for a quick action fix but this film has way more style than it does substance. On the surface, the character of Aatami is a great representation of the lone silent hero but beneath the surface, we don’t learn much about this man outside of expositionary dialogue (aren’t we tired of that?). There’s more I would’ve liked to learn about this character, maybe a glimpse of what made this man earn a good amount of “Sisu” (a difficult-to-translate Finnish word the film describes as a “white knuckle form of courage and unimaginable determination”). Yes, he’s lost everything. Yes, he’s a shell of the man he once was. We’ve seen all this before. But it takes more than great action scenes, beautiful gloomy landscapes (courtesy of cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos) and a bit of dark humor to make a memorable action film. Sisu is great but not particularly memorable. And maybe that’s all this film wants to be.
“Sisu” is a great, fun action film lead by a gruff wordless performance from Jorma Tommila. The action pieces are fun to watch, the film moves at a brisk pace and the typical action fan will get his fix with the short wild ride ahead of them. However, there is less substance to “Sisu” as there is terrific style. The 80s-90s action films are on director Helander’s sleeve throughout but one may wish that his distinct storytelling voice would be shown on the same sleeve. There’s still time for Helander to match substance to his sumptuous style and when that happens, there’s no doubt he’ll be just as dangerous a storyteller as his protagonist is a killer.