Sisu (2023) Review

Jalmari Helander is back and the last time he directed a feature-length film was the 2014 action-adventure Big Game starring Samuel L. Jackson. His new movie, Sisu sees the Finnish director blending a violent WWII revenge fantasy with spaghetti Western and action-adventure tropes. At the heart of the movie is Aatami (Jorma Tommila, who’s been Jalmari’s regular since appearing in Rare Exports and Big Game), who’s been living like a hermit in 1944-set Lapland with his dog and a horse. He’s been trying his luck to search for gold and after endless digging, he finally discovers them. Just enough gold nuggets to fill up a bag and from there, he sets out on a journey, only to subsequently encounter a small army of Nazi soldiers led by SS officer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie).

Well, long story short, the Nazis eventually find out that Aatami is carrying lots of gold in his possession. Bruno wants him dead to get his hands on Aatami’s gold but Aatami is no pushover. He turns out to be a one-man killing machine who used to dispatch over 300 Russian soldiers and even earned the nickname Koschei, which means “The Immortal”. Stealing Aatami’s gold is a big mistake — a result that prompted the man of few words will do whatever it takes to retrieve his possession at all costs.

Helander, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps things simple enough: Sisu is all about a man killing Nazis for trying to steal his precious gold. The movie gets off to a promising start with an extended dialogue-free opening scene of Aatami searching for gold in the vast landscape of Lapland. This is where Kjell Lageroos’ visually stunning cinematography excels the most in capturing the rugged beauty of the northernmost region of Finland. His atmospherically-shot underwater scene later in the movie deserves equal mention as well. Aatami’s subsequently earlier encounter with the Nazis showcased Helander’s knack for John Wick-like gritty and unflinching action violence (at one point, we see Aatami plunges his knife through the side of a Nazi soldier’s temple). The violence is as gleefully over-the-top as it gets and Helander doesn’t skimp on the gory parts as well. For instance, there’s a scene where a horse is blown to smithereens after crossing through a minefield and the same also goes for some of the poor Nazi soldiers.

The Nazis led by Aksel Hennie's Bruno Helldorf in "Sisu" (2023)

Jorma Tommila’s grizzled and near-wordless lead performance as Aatami echoes like a cross of Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and a WWII version of Keanu Reeves’ John Wick. The former is especially true for his mythical-like antihero figure and the sixtysomething Tommila does a good job playing such a no-nonsense, bad-a** character. Aksel Hennie and Jack Doolan, where the latter plays the Nazi sharpshooter Wolf deliver solid support as the movie’s slimy antagonists.

Aatami’s uncompromising ways of killing Nazis in various gory and brutal manners are certainly fun to watch. And while Sisu fulfils this revenge-fantasy vibe, the movie’s otherwise lean 91-minute runtime feels like it was overstretched for its own good. A movie that carries such a thin narrative can only get so far as some scenes are either repetitive or hollow. Helander’s attempt of introducing a subplot revolving around a group of abducted women (among them includes Mimosa Willamo’s Aino) is seen more as an obligatory filler of sorts as if the writer-director wanted to shoehorn moments of female empowerment.

Another thing that bothers me the most is Helander chose to divide his story into a chapters-style narrative (e.g. “The Gold” and “The Nazis”). It ends up more like a gimmick that Sisu could simply do without the chapters since it barely made a difference.

Overall, Sisu is decent enough for an exploitative revenge fantasy, even though it could have been better that I would rank this alongside John Wick: Chapter 4, especially after the movie’s promising trailer and near-universal praises since making its debut last September at the Midnight Madness of Toronto Film Festival.