April 28, 2023

Ryan Bordow

Review: Here’s why ‘Sisu’ comes off a bit undercooked

Now that “looks like John Wick” is a genre unto itself, we have to make space for “looks like John Wick but isn’t really,” a canon growing by the day. Sisu, the tale of a miner on a killing spree after the Nazis steal his gold, bears the hallmarks of a Wickalike—there’s even an over-marketed dog companion—but its vibe is refreshingly distinct. For one, it’s a hell of a lot more Finnish.

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Sisu takes place during the Lapland War, when the Finns turned against their former allies the Nazis and drove them out of the country. On their way out, the Nazis adopt a scorched-earth policy, torching everything in their wake in the already-desolate Lapland. It’s in this burning wilderness that Aatami (Jorma Tommila), a Finnish solider-turned-miner, finds a whole lot of gold, and it’s there that the Nazis take it from him, inadvertently igniting his scorched-Nazi policy like the idiot kindling they are. The rest is just fire traveling the fuse.

Writer/director Jalmari Helander keeps the backstory simple, which is advisable— what’s there is a little cliché (would you believe Aatami’s wife is dead?). But the world is toldin the production design, which finds in “scorched earth” its stylistic ethos. Embers and ash float through burnt panoramas, clouding Western-esque wide shots with thick, lifeless smoke as homes smolder in the background. It’s the perfect arena for aesthetic violence: a historically grounded post-apocalypse, a liminal space between hell on earth and hell itself. Add some easy-to-hate villains and you’ve got a recipe for barbarity.

Despite Nazi hating coming naturally to most people, the film takes a drastic “these are bad guys” shortcut early on, implicating the platoon who stole Aatami’s gold in the rape of the female prisoners they’re transporting. These women appear sporadically throughout Sisu, sometimes at key moments—one of them explains the film’s title, an untranslatable Finnish word for unyielding strength of will—but they’re mostly featureless and unnamed, a hollow, faux-feminist pastiche of Mad Max: Fury Road, which at least gave its prisoners some narrative consequence. Between that and the folkloric moniker Aatami’s enemies bestow upon him— “Koschei,” Russian for “the Immortal,” suspiciously similar to John Wick’s “Baba Yaga”—it starts to feel like Sisu is cribbing.

But then the action kicks in, and it’s nothing like the elaborate, stagey long takes of Wick and his ilk. If anything, it’s a direct descendent of First Blood: brutal, concise, and methodically cut, the lens square in the face of the violence like a sadistic spectator. When things go hand-to-hand, punches aren’t launched from spring-loaded arms but weighed and arced carefully like swings of a pickaxe. It’s deliberate, bruising stuff, dripping with squibs and moral disregard (that the filmrefuses to reckon with the Finns once fighting for the Nazis only affirms its view of violence as essentially absurd). Where Wick wants you to cheer; Sisu wants you to wince.

But at its deliberate pace—and with such a brief runtime—it’s hard to ignore that the filmis just four or so set pieces. It strings a few brutalities together with minimal connective tissue, leaving enough space to remember similar but more striking movies about unstoppable killing machines. It’s too slight to measure up: Fury Road had more rounded female characters; Revenge had more memorable self-surgery; John Wick had a better dog; a hundred other movies killed Nazis just as dead. Beyond the tone and visual style, Sisu’s strongest links are its performances—Tommila with an angrier take on the laconic killer type, Askel Hennie as a Nazi with banally evil eyes—but they’re not enough to shock the film to life.

There’s nothing notably offensive about Sisu, but it comes off a bit undercooked. Its untranslatable title can be rendered as a shrug.

★★½   (2.5/5)