Let’s begin with a brief historical recap: at the end of World War I, Germany was not in a good place (financially or spiritually) leaving them open to the ideas of a charismatic failed painter vegan coward who used the fear of outsiders and fear of never possessing country pride to form a movement in which they could build themselves back up as a country before invading others and killing millions of individuals they felt were inferior (other faiths, the infirm, transgender, gay). Waving the Nazi flag, the charismatic failed painter vegan coward waged war on the world and lost — again. Now, when stories want to make it plain that the antagonists of the stories are not to be mourned (or, rather, should be mocked), they make them Nazis. The latest tale to invoke the gleeful and merciless destruction of Nazis is Finnish writer/director Jalmari Helander’s Sisu, releasing wide in theaters after an impactful world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival 2022, distributed by Lionsgate, the home of John Wick. Seeing the brilliantly designed mutilation of absolute bastards is the promise of Sisu’s trailer and the film delivers from start to finish, never once failing to lose its powerful emotional core so that the audience doesn’t just observe the thunderous vengeance inflicted upon these self-righteous bastards, we cheer for it.
Finland 1944: World War II is nearly over and the Third Reich is nearly defeated. Retired from fighting, a man (Jorma Tommila) panhandles in search of gold, hoping to turn his fortunes around. As luck would have it, he finds a heavy vein, digging up all he can before leaving camp for somewhere. But fortune is a bitter mistress and the man comes across a Nazi unit whose leader, Bruno (Aksel Hennie), wants the gold for himself, thinking the man to be easy pickings as it’s one lone old man versus their well-stocked, well-armed unit of 10+ soldiers. Except this is no ordinary old man and, once provoked, he will not stop and cannot be stopped until each one those so-called warriors are dead.
Though the trailer may indicate that Sisu is “From the studio behind John Wick,” this 2022 film is only being distributed by Lionsgate, they didn’t have a hand in making it. That said, Sisu fits right in to that “lone wolf with a mean vengeance streak” vibe that the studio is hard at work making their trademark between the John Wick franchise and 2021’s underappreciated The Protégé. The man speaks far less than Wick does, but fights with incredible intellect and ferocity that would put both Wick and Anna Dutton (Maggie Q in The Protégé) on their heels. Heck, if one views the Wick films as an allegory of a man fighting through hell and G-d to reach freedom, then Tommila’s man is the fighter who pisses off Death as the specter is unable to collect a soul that refuses to quit the mortal plane. You think Wick is a badass with his black suit body armor and dragon’s breath shotgun (John Wick: Chapter 4)? Try a man who manages to MacGyver his way through any scenario, no matter the punishment it places on his body. This is but one of the many things the audience witnesses that’re both incredible brutal in execution while being some of the most ingenious stunt sequences in an action film. And each time that you think a stunt has gone as far as it can possible go, Helander (Rare Exports) finds a new gear.
One of the most impressive things about the film is that much of what we, the audience, know for sure about the events before us either comes from a brief narration at the top of the film or from conversation we’re privy to involving the unit. The man doesn’t speak, requiring that Tommila (Rare Exports) convey everything via physical performance, a task which one wouldn’t think would be difficult to do, yet as the man becomes more bloodied and covered in grime, so much of what we come to understand about the internal working of him is channeled through Tommila’s face. We’re able to denote when he’s planning, when he’s scared, angry, all of it; a performance that truly makes the audience feel grateful not to be on the receiving end of such a stare. Combining all of this with several stunt sequences, Tommila makes this enigma of a person someone who clearly acts with intention, wasting neither thought nor movement when confronted with a life-or-death situation. But with Tommila playing a largely silent role, Helander fills in the blanks through dialogue that moves the characters forward masked as exposition. Using the comms on their tank, Bruno has sniper/communications officer Wolf (Jack Doolan) report in to their general, who tells Bruno exactly who they’re dealing with simply from a description of Tommila: he’s Aatami, a ruthless Finnish soldier whom his own command couldn’t control and whose unrelenting drive gave him the nickname “The Immortal” because he refuses to die. It plays about as well as the scene in John Wick (2014) when John Leguizamo’s Aurelio tells Michael Nyqvist’s Viggo what Josef (Alfie Allen) did and too whom: “Oh.” From this moment forward, even having seen Tommila as Aatami in action, the mood is officially set for some massive trauma to be accomplished on these shitbags and the script manages to deliver in truly imaginative ways. What’s unexpected is how Helander manages to also insert an emotional component so that it’s not all blood and viscera, but honest heart and vulnerability. When I tell you that I welled up, it wasn’t because a Nazi got blown up in a minefield (we cheer at that), but it was in a moment wherein humanity and justice was (somewhat) restored, allowing the audience to unclench for the briefest of time before things escalate up to the line of reason which creaks under the weight of action film necessities.
If there is a problem with Sisu, it’s one that will hit differently depending on the mentality of the audience. A film like this can mutilate, disfigure, and amputate in all kinds of creative ways that’ll make you squirm in your seat and have you peeking through split fingers to ensure you don’t miss a moment, but there’s an instance that is as much historically accurate as it is overused to the point of being unnecessary: sexual assault of women. The film as a whole doesn’t change much without this aspect and it’s not shown on screen, it’s just heavily implied in the introduction of Wolf as someone exiting a truck with his pants undone, after which the camera shows us a woman on the floor of the truckbed in a car filled with five others whose clearly been through something. Again, historically, soldiers of all countries (including the U.S.) have indulged their misogyny in cruel ways, something that the inclusion of these women implies without this added visual correlation. The film as a whole doesn’t change much without this specific and clear indication, but it hangs over everything deeply. The characters themselves, though, are necessary, the presumptive leader Aino (Mimosa Willamo) adding some local mythology that only amplifies Aatami’s legend so that the women’s guard properly shit themselves about who is coming for them, as well as proving to be vital to the conclusion.
An action film like Sisu possesses global appeal as there are plenty of stories wherein a lone hunter, pushed too far, destroys those who brought trouble to their door. These warriors often find their strength in pain, which they either try to hide or run from. In the case of Helander’s film, he appears to be drawing from his own community from which the term “sisu” exists. According to the opening, “sisu” is a Finnish word that can’t be translated, but refers to “a white-knuckle form of courage and unimaginable determination.” If Hedlander’s aim was to present that on camera, to demonstrate what sisu looks like to the world, I’d wager on incredible success. There’s no other word than “rage” to describe what it feels like to watch Tommila’s Aatami at work. For me, a Jewish man, it will never not be joyous to watch Nazis meet a brutal end in fiction. But the way Tommila plays it, the way Hedlander’s written and captured it on film, Aatami isn’t just raging at these men, but what they represent in their greedy, cowardly ways, how they lack the constitution to see their convictions through. Sisu is a mindset that the rest of us are not ready for, but I’m delighted that Hedlander found a way for us all to experience it from the safety of our seats.
In theaters April 28th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Lionsgate Sisu webpage.
For more information on the making of Sisu, make sure to check out the interview between writer/director Jalmari Helander and EoM senior interviewer Thomas Manning.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.