Nazis die and Finns triumph in the Finnish WW2 thriller “Sisu,” a spaghetti Western–style action-adventure set in the Lapland plains of Finland. In this polished genre exercise, a stubborn Finnish gold prospector runs away from, and also violently dispatches, a group of Nazis during the war’s concluding months.
Writer-director Jalmari Helander (“Big Game,” “Rare Exports”) doesn’t really develop his post-post-modern pastiche beyond its basic high-concept premise, so “Sisu” — premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival — never becomes more than an energetically realized live-action cartoon. Thankfully, Helander and his collaborators deliver a good-enough potboiler, thanks especially to the invigorating contributions of cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos and editor Juho Virolainen.
There’s not much more to “Sisu”, but it certainly looks good and moves briskly from one action scene to the next.
That said, you might be disappointed by “Sisu” if you expect it to develop, either in terms of narrative momentum or dramatic tension. There’s certainly no point in judging Helander’s latest based on its lightly worn national pride. An establishing intertitle breaks down the Finnish word “Sisu,” which we’re told “cannot be translated” beyond “a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination” that “manifests itself when all hope is lost.” Later, a Finnish prisoner of war off-handedly says that the tight-lipped Finnish ex-soldier Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) “refuses to die”: “We have a word for that in Finland, but it cannot be translated.”
Aatami leads by example, but his story doesn’t really take viewers anywhere that they won’t expect given its second-hand nature. Set during 1944, “Sisu” follows Aatami as he struggles to cash in on a rich gold deposit that he finds in the middle of the desolate Lapland. He’s almost immediately found and pursued by a troop of ruthless Nazis, led by Aksel Hennie’s macho SS Obersturmfuhrer, who want to use the Finn’s gold to escape a looming death sentence. Hennie’s group travel, by tank and truck, with a group of Finnish female prisoners-of-war, at least one of whom is molested (off-camera) by the Nazis.
Helander quickly sets up what motivates these characters in a few early scenes. Aatami’s too greedy to abandon his claim, but he’s also human enough, as we see when he sends his adorable grey poodle mix running away before he confronts some Nazis. Hennie’s men also don’t need to say much to establish their concerns, since Helander shows us several Nazi corpses strung up on telephone poles.
The Finnish POWs don’t really say or do much, which makes it hard to care about a perfunctory later scene where they strike a “Right Stuff”–style pose and fire some guns. That’s the kind of fourth-draft story beat that jaded action fans might expect from “Avengers: Endgame,” so it’s sort of disappointing to see that kind of tokenism in Helander’s relatively spartan spectacular.
“Sisu” mostly works on its own terms, which makes its apparent shortcomings all the more frustrating. Everything inevitably feels like a showcase for story-telling economy and technical craftsmanship, so it’s unsurprising that the chases and action scenes overshadow almost everything that requires a relatively deep emotional investment. It’s great fun to see Aatami tumble onto and dive under Nazi transport vehicles, but you might not feel as excited whenever Tomilla’s character isn’t a human-shaped object in restless motion.
There’s also some humor scattered throughout “Sisu,” but it inadvertently underscores how one-note the rest of the movie tends to be. A particularly grisly early scene only climaxes after Hennie’s character forces some reluctant Nazi cannon fodder to follow Aatami past a field littered with deadly landmines. The surreal bloodshed that ensues won’t disappoint fans of comic violence, but the scene’s cutesy punchline — “How many mines did you bury here?” “All of them.” — only confirms the filmmakers’ unapologetically shallow presentation.
The rest of “Sisu” plays out like one long chase scene that’s occasionally interrupted by dramatic tangents. Helander spends just enough time humanizing his Nazi antagonists, whose blinkered tough-guy posturing speaks for them whenever they squint and/or scowl into the far distance. It’s also telling that Helander cast Onni Tormila, Jorma’s son, as a Nazi in “Sisu” after featuring both actors in his two previous features. (Helander is also Onni’s maternal uncle.) Helander’s Nazis may not be more complex than Aatami, but they’re about as well-framed and dramatically posed. Everybody looks good in extreme close-ups, and that’s sometimes enough to keep the slowest interstitial scenes moving forward to the next big bang.
Rowdy festival audiences will probably adore “Sisu” since it looks gorgeous and never really slows down long enough to be dull. Everyone else’s mileage will likely vary based on the size of the screen and the crowd. Helander’s latest remains impressive on its own terms thanks to its virtuosic patchwork style, but if you watch “Sisu” at home, your mind could wander to your bookshelves, where you’ll maybe find some of the filmmakers’ acknowledged influences, like “Rambo: First Blood” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” “Sisu” will do, in a pinch, but it’s not fresh enough to warrant a second look.
“Sisu” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.