In Sisu, a gory action romp set in World War II, writer-director Jalmari Helander delivers on the basics of just about everything one could hope for with a film like this. Kills grow increasingly creative without losing any of their unrestrained bloodiness and the survival story being told of a determined character facing down immense odds is efficient to a fault. Just as the film's protagonist is a lean, mean, fighting machine, the Finnish film itself is a propulsive force that just keeps pushing onward through the muck. Getting better as it goes along, it is a work whose playful spirit helps to smooth over some of the shortcomings that continue to linger underneath it all. Even as it ends up leaving much to be desired — the force of its many fights would have benefited from more flair in their execution — there is still more than enough proper fun to be had in the bloody carnage Sisu throws itself into.
Jorma Tommila, who starred in Helander's delightful feature debut Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, plays a grizzled war veteran turned lonely miner on a perilous journey through a desolate war zone. After discovering gold in the wilderness of Lapland, a northern region of Finland, he sets out to the nearest town to convert his find into cash. His name is Aatami Korpi, though he has become more of a towering myth than a mere man. Embodying what is known as "sisu" (a Finnish word we are informed has no direct translation though is essentially the concept of courage and determination to just keep going), he will have to fight his way through a group of Nazis who want the gold for themselves.
And my goodness does he fight. From the very first moment he sends away his adorable canine companion before getting his hands dirty, it is clear that he is a man who is not to be trifled with. It is not just the brutality that he brings down on the heads of his pursuers, but the ingenuity in how he does so. This begins with a sudden knife through the head of one that — while a strong yet simple start — is but an appetizer for the many violent courses to come. Even as its violence grows more and more absurd, it doesn't diminish the tension. Rather, it feels like a more grimy riff on a film like Mad Max: Fury Road. It isn't ever as outstanding as that, prioritizing bloody spectacle over visual splendor, but it still mostly succeeds at all it sets out to do. Tommila is terrific in the role despite barely saying a word, conveying all we need to know with a piercing stare that remains even when his face is covered with blood.
What feels less impactful is how the film introduces a group of women held captive by the Nazis then seems to completely forget about them until the end. Though there is plenty of joy to be had when they strike back at their captors, it is undercut by the failure to build up their characters. While the film clearly values efficiency over all else, this element of the story feels undercooked. Credit must be given to Mimosa Willamo as Aino, the group's informal leader, who brings gravitas and grit that makes one wish she had been made more central to the experience.
What makes up for this is how much Sisu lets loose in its finale. Though the majority of the film could hardly be called restrained, the conclusion is where it really takes flight. This helps to not only elevate the film above its lesser components, but ends it on a high note. Though its punches didn't always hit as hard as they could and should have, Sisu brings the type of cinematic experience where its buckets of blood manage to largely wash away any flaws. ♦SISU