Sisu (Film Review): Old-School Revenge
Sisu keeps a familiar type of revenge story feeling fresh with visual-driven storytelling, tense pacing, and old-school action and stunts.
Just when I thought we’d gotten every type of World War II story possible on the big screen, we now have the tale of a humble gold prospector blowing up Nazis in the wilderness. It’s not the most innovative tale ever told, I know, but I don’t think anyone can argue against blowing up Nazis … or most people wouldn’t, sadly. Sisu (which is not the spinoff of Raya and the Last Dragon that I’m sure is coming someday)delivers on that front, on behalf of writer-director Jalmari Helander. Jorma Tommila stars as Aatami Korpi, a lone prospector wandering the wilderness of Lapland, Finland during the final days of World War II. Just as he finds a huge payload, it’s all stolen by a horde of Nazis. But little do they know how ruthless Aatami is, as he goes through hell and back to retrieve his gold and exact brutal, bloody vengeance.
Like I said, Sisu isn’t anything that new or deep in terms of story. We’ve seen stories about hardened, tough-as-nails protagonists who get screwed over and go on a rampage to right the wrongs done to them. But Sisu gives such a story a bit of fresh new life with its environment and atmosphere. From the wide-spanning plains and fields to the sunset-drenched mountain ranges to the barren, destroyed remains of towns, all of which were shot on location, Sisu is a simple but gorgeous feast for the eyes from the first shot. And Helander knows this, because the film is very meticulously and somberly paced. Some may find it too slow for what they’re coming to see, but I love how this lets the visuals tell the story and how thoroughly in each moment we are.
Aatami’s fight for survival and revenge is also given a much more primal feel because of the setting and tone. He strongly resembles a wild animal on the hunt, but one with a soul and humanity still in there. Helping that comparison is his almost complete lack of any dialogue in Sisu. Every second you see him, you just have his expressions and actions to read into, all of which are nailed by Tommila. Even before you’re told what his backstory is, you can get a general sense of it just by watching him, and you feel the fear he inflicts upon his enemies as they react to him. You buy him as someone who’s so determined and resilient that he could survive most of the outlandish perils thrown at him … emphasis on most.
Aatami is notorious in the story for being unkillable, but I initially thought that was because he seems unkillable. But some of what he ends up surviving has me convinced he’s genuinely supernaturally indestructible, to a point where I stopped worrying about him because no matter what was happening, my main thought was, “Eh, he’ll be fine.” It’s a throwback to certain 80s action movies where the hero seems outlandishly invincible, and like those movies, you need to disregard logic and stretch your suspension of disbelief to stay with Sisu. I personally could, and I feel like most others will as well because of how much we still feel like we’re with this character … and again, because we’re watching Nazis get slaughtered. I think people will allow some leeway for that.
Thankfully, every other similarity to 80s action is very much welcomed. I don’t mean the story or setting, more the spirit of the action, stunts, and over-the-top violence. While the absolute most extreme moments had to have been done digitally, a majority of the film is actual stunt people being thrown around, dragged under trucks, and jumping on and over tanks and other vehicles, all of which are actually there as well. It’s a very old-school approach to action that has me marveling at how much hands-on work went into it, which is something I yearn to see more often in movies like this. The violence is also extreme, gruesome, and occasionally unabashedly ridiculous, in a way that most of the time doesn’t clash with the gritty tone of Sisu.
You can certainly point to a few moments that venture a bit too far into cheesy territory. The biggest example for me is a shot of several characters lined up with guns in what looks like a blatant trailer shot, set to a more rock-leaning score that’s jarringly different from the rest of the music. But for one thing, these don’t make up the majority of the film and therefore don’t linger for too long. And for another, this mostly happens towards the heightened climax of Sisu, where you’re invested enough in the plight of Aatami and those he saves to roll with it. Every victory he has, big or small, is immensely satisfying, especially when it empowers those who haven’t been able to rise up against their own oppressors until now.
Sisu is very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of film that I think will win most people over. It transcends its very simple story by telling it in a refreshingly old-school way. Everything about its construction feels timelessly raw in a way very few films can achieve, which goes so well with its deliberately glacial pacing. Whether you want a gleefully visceral bloodbath, a simple, strong, silent protagonist to root for, or an atmospheric adventure in the wild, you should be happy overall. It’s not exactly a gold mine of depth, but it’s a healthy payload of fun nonetheless.
Sisu will be released in US theaters on April 28, 2023. Read our interview with director Jalmari Helander.