Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Sisu: It’s Finnish for “Don’t Mess with Him”

Thanks to Putin, Finland is bringing some sisu to NATO. That is a hard to precisely translate Finnish word that roughly encompasses gritty determination and sheer, defiant guts. Aatami Korpi has it in abundance. His sisu became legendary during the Winter War against the Soviets, but so far, he has taken a pass on the Lapland War against the National Socialists. Unfortunately, a retreating German commander decides to declare war on him, which is a very bad decision in Jalmari Helander’s Sisu, opening Friday in theaters.

The Soviets took everything from Korpi, killing his family and burning his home—and then he totally lost it. His superior officers couldn’t control him anymore, so they just turned Korpi loose to kill Soviets, which he did, in legendary numbers. Now, he is a grizzled old prospector, who wants the world to leave him alone. Like Tom Waits in
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Korpi proceeds from a few specks of gold dust in his pan to a considerable vein in remarkably short order.

Also, like Waits, Korpi will have to defend his diggings, but instead of claim-jumpers, he will be hunted by the retreating German SS company he encounters on the road to Helsinki. Officer Bruno Helldorf has been conducting a scorched earth campaign, but he is savvy enough to understand the war is lost. Looking to the future, he figures Korpi’s gold can set him up for whatever comes next, so he is willing to disregard orders to get his hands on it.

Frankly, Helander’s two prior features,
Big Game and Rare Exports, sounded cool, but failed to live up to their high concept promise. However, Sisu is far and away his most successful film to-date, thanks to its archetypal simplicity. Much like Korpi’s superiors in the Winter War, Helander just winds him up and sends off into big action set pieces to kill Germans. It isn’t complicated, but its brutally, cathartically entertaining, especially if you have reached an age where at you really enjoy watching old guys kick butt.

Jorma Tommila couldn’t possibly be anymore grizzled or badassed as Korpi. He is sisu personified and the camera loves him for it. Aksel Hennie (who previously fought National Socialists as the title character in
Max Manus) is suitably sinister, in a calculating and cold, clammy kind of way. While the captive women Helldorf is transporting are only minimally developed as characters, when they turn into vengeance-seeking action figures in their own right, it is still highly satisfying.

Cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos gives it all a big, sprawling, epically grungy almost-spaghetti-western-like look that suits its gritty, larger-than-life protagonist and the spectacularly violent battles. It is wildly over-the-top, but it is also grounded in very real, very tragic Finnish history. This time around, Korpi is killing Germans, but the film frequently reminds us why he was killing Soviets only a few years before. Enthusiastically recommended for action fans,
Sisu opens this Friday (2/28) in theaters, including the AMC Lincoln Square in New York.