Part of Finland’s national sense of self is the concept of ‘Sisu’, an attribute with no direct translation to English, but is roughly an extreme kind of stoicism and determination in the face of incredible odds. This is personified by grizzled Winter War veteran Korpi (Jorma Tomilla), a one-man death squad nicknamed ‘The Immortal’, who terrorised the Soviet Union in eastern Finland. Now a prospector living alone with his Bedlington terrier in 1944, he strikes a rich seam of gold which he intends to take by horse to the Bank of Finland in Helsinki, over 500 miles away. Standing in the way is a sizable faction of the Nazi army, conducting a scorched-earth policy on their march back to Germany.
As popcorn action flicks go, Sisu is an absolute corker. Throwing in elements of old Commando comics, spaghetti westerns, Indiana Jones-style period adventure, and John Wick-level carnage, Jalmari Helander‘s first film in nine years sees him roaring back with this full-throttle, wrecking-ball banger. It’s all anchored by Tomilla’s taciturn, practically silent turn as the ageing soldier who refuses to let a little thing like an ongoing global conflict get in his way, and he absolutely convinces. Aksel Hennie is Bruno, the formidable SS officer who can tell which way the wind of war is blowing and figures that the gold will enable him to escape somewhere sunny and -given what we know from history – presumably Latin American.
This is all the set-up that’s required to ignite this frequently ridiculous but gloriously fun slice of cartoonish ultra-violence. Knives are hammered through heads, soldiers are taken out by land mines lobbed at heads, and a slit throat is used as a handy source of air underwater. Our laconic protagonist survives shooting, hanging, burning, and dangling from a plane. It’s got a Sam Raimi-level grasp of ludicrous violence and a Bollywood-level grasp of physics. It also tries not be an entire macho sausage-fest as Korpi’s appearance opens a window of opportunity for a group of female captives led by Mimosa Willamo‘s Aino to make their escape and take their own form of revenge against their captors. It might be just a nod towards anything approaching a progressive mindset, but at least it’s there.
For all its grungy violence and a premise rooted in ’70s exploitation, it’s a handsome film to look at. Kjell Lagerroos‘ cinematography evokes both the dazzling sun and sub-zero chill of the desolate landscape, and its edited with equal icy clarity by Juho Virolainen. Some of the CGI wobbles a little, but given how unbeholden Sisu is to reality that’s easily forgiven. Perhaps best of all is a tremendous score by Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä that channels the old-school lone-wolf cool of Ennio Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone.
With Sony backing, it’s to be hoped that Sisu gets a decent cinema release beyond the festival circuit. As a communal viewing experience it’s a beautiful thing, and given how depressing the political landscape is at present, it’s refreshing to be able to see something as straightforward and righteous as a pack of Nazis getting obliterated. Although, whisper it… Hennie’s villain is more cool than is comfortable (it’s difficult to really get that exploitation grubbiness out). A blunt slice of high-octane and defiantly bad taste revisionist action with a frankly brilliant hero, Sisu has cult status stamped all over it.
Screened as part of Glasgow FrightFest 2023