REVIEW: “Sisu” (2023)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

“Sisu” is every bit as violent and gory as its red band trailer teased. Gleefully so which turns out to be a big part of its twisted charm. Writer-director Jalmari Helander goes all out with a movie that can be defined a number of different ways. It’s a Finnish World War II film. It’s a grindhouse genre flick with a slick coat of studio paint. And it’s a rousing crowdpleaser full of over the top action aimed at getting visceral responses from its audience. It’s pure genre spectacle, and I had a blast with it.

In case you’re wondering about the title, we get an opening card that reads “Sisu is a Finnish word that cannot be translated. It means a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination. Sisu manifests itself when all hope is lost.” There’s certainly gravitas in those words. But the movie itself is much more straightforward. It’s about Nazis getting their comeuppance through a delightful assortment of gruesome means. It’s lean, it’s brash, and it has a crystal clear vision of what it wants to be. And boy does it realize that vision.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Broken down into chapters with straight-to-the-point titles like “The Gold”, “The Nazis”, and “The Minefield”, the story unfolds during the late months of 1944 in Finland’s Lapland region. Historically, Finland had recently signed the Moscow Armistice. Among the agreement’s stipulations was that Finland must drive out all remaining German troops from their country. It led to a four-month conflict called the Lapland War. And that’s the setting for Helander’s simple yet invigorating story.

Far away in the sparse Lapland wilds we’re introduced to an old man who we later learn is named Aatami. He’s played with a hushed ferocity by Jorma Tommila in what is a mostly dialogue-free role. Aatami has tried to distance himself from the war, choosing to spend his time prospecting for gold in the quiet company of his loyal dog and horse. While Aatami enjoys his solitude, remnants of the war still lingers, from the roars of aircraft flying overhead to the occasional echo of gunfire to the ominous glow of artillery on the horizon.

While digging deep into the earth Aatami happens upon a huge deposit of sparkling yellow gold. After chiseling out his new found fortune he washes up, hops onto his horse, and heads off with his pup following along. His idea is to cash in at the nearest town, but along the way he encounters a company of Nazis led by a ruthless SS Obersturmführer named Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie). They’re essentially a brutal death squad carrying out Hitler’s ‘scorched earth’ tactics, burning and killing everything in their path on their way out of Finland. They’ve even taken some local women as souvenirs – something that’ll come back to haunt them.

At first it looks as if their encounter with Aatami will only consist of a little ridicule and mockery. But you know movie Nazis – they just can’t help themselves. In their arrogance they pick a fight with what they perceive to be easy prey. Of course they learn the hard way that Aatami isn’t some frail old relic. In fact, they’ve crossed paths with a lethal killing machine who quickly begins dispatching his Third Reich adversaries through a grisly array of methods. Rifles, pistols, a pickaxe, a landmine, a knife the length of your forearm – they all come into play.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

“Sisu” quickly settles into its gritty one-man-army mode. It’s as straightforward as a movie can be and its lack of pretension is actually one of its biggest strengths. Simply put, it’s a movie about a grizzled old man impaling, beheaded, eviscerating, and blowing up Nazis. We root for him every step of the way because…well…they’re Nazis. And Helander paints them with as broad of a brush as possible. Secrets are revealed about Aatami’s violent past, but that doesn’t sidetrack the movie’s bigger interest – righteous carnage.

“Sisu” is superbly shot and teeming with bravado and style. It resembles what you might expect if Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino had co-directed a John Wick movie set in the waning days of World War II. It’s a hardcore genre flick through and through and it’s great seeing something like it getting a wider release. How it will do at the box office is anyone’s guess. But it’s a bloody good time that begs to be seen with an energized audience who know exactly what to expect. “Sisu” opens in theaters today.


16 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Sisu” (2023)

  1. Yeah, I want to see this. It looks so fucking insane. Plus, I love it when films like this don’t take themselves seriously and know what it is trying to be and not apologize for it.

  2. I really want to see this. I’m hoping my theater holds on to it for a couple of weeks so I can actually go. Of course they get it during one of my busy weeks/weekends.

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