Imagine an alternate version of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ minus the usual Tarantino’s quippy dialogues and layered narrative with Lt. Aldo Raine going on a solo mission instead of assembling a death squad to kill Nazis. It’s impossible not to see Jalmari Helander’s latest work in ‘Sisu’ – his first feature movie since 2014’s ‘Big Game’ – contains a shade of that aforementioned 2009 masterpiece. Besides, both ‘Sisu’ and ‘Inglourious Basterds’ shared the same general killin’ Nazis setup in a revisionist WWII war-film style, complete with Tarantino-esque stylized and over-the-top violence.
But unlike the more ambitious and epic scope of ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ Helander keeps his movie plain and simple. ‘Sisu’ is basically a story that takes place during the final days of World War II in 1944 when a former Finnish soldier (Jorma Tommila’s Aatami Korpi) has been living in solitude in the vast wilderness of Lapland. With his dog and a horse by his side, he’s been working hard as a miner in search of gold, and after finally managing to discover lots of them, he heads to the city to cash in his loot. However, he encounters the Nazi soldiers en route to the city. The Nazis try to steal his belonging, prompting Aatami to go berserk.
This is where the violence starts, and Helander never shies away from depicting them as graphic as possible, including stabbing a knife through a Nazi’s head. After Aatami killed a few of them, the rest of the Nazis, led by SS Obersturmführer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie) and his sharpshooter, Wolf (Jack Doolan), decided to hunt him down. The Nazis even manage to steal his gold since Bruno sees it as a golden opportunity (no pun intended) to disappear somewhere far and avoid the war-crime prosecution.
From here, it’s a ‘John Wick’-like revenge fantasy, but instead of seeking vengeance for those who killed his beloved dog, Aatami’s singular mission is to kill the Nazis who have stolen his gold. Tommila’s Aatami is a near-silent type who barely says a word other than grunting for most parts of the movie. He’s more of a ‘kill first, ask question later’ kind of person and doesn’t bat an eye when it comes to killing the Nazis.
Tommila may have been 64 years old at the time of its theatrical release, but he’s pretty impressive for his age to pull off a physically-demanding role. Not to mention his no-nonsense grizzled charm and his expressive and almost-wordless acting performance, which made him such a formidable protagonist. He has the look of a battle-hardened man who has been through a lot, and the last thing a person shouldn’t have done is mess with someone like Aatami.
In keeping the minimalist approach of its narrative structure, we only learn what we need to know about Aatami’s background. His character even comes across as a mythical figure that echoes Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name character seen in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western classic of the ‘Dollars Trilogy’ in the ‘60s. In ‘Sisu’, Aatami bears the nickname of ‘Koschei,’ which simply means ‘The Immortal’. It’s not because he’s literally unkillable but rather a persistent man who refused to die.
The movie also boasts a memorable main antagonist in the form of Askel Hennie’s sadistic turn as the high-ranking SS officer, making him a perfect foil for Tommila’s Aatami. The action in ‘Sisu’ may have been less elaborate and stylish as seen in the ‘John Wick’ movies, including the impressive fourth chapter released last month. But Helander still deserved credit for his visceral action and violent set pieces. The earlier kills aside. The movie also features a gory minefield sequence where some of the poor Nazis get blown to bits. He doesn’t spare the animal either, which can be evidently seen in Aatami’s ill-fated horse. Kjell Lagerroos’ widescreen cinematography is crisp and atmospheric as he successfully captured the barren Finnish wilderness as if the place belonged to the post-apocalyptic world of ‘Mad Max.’
‘Sisu’ is not without its few flaws, and one of the problems here is the padded-out introduction of the Finnish women (one of them played by Mimosa Willamo as Aino) who is held prisoner by the Nazis. Their appearances are more like an unnecessary filler, and even by the time Helander does try to make them worthwhile with moments of female empowerment, it’s all too little and too late.
Helander also attempts to spice up his story by dividing them into chapters with the choice of colors and fonts reminiscent of Tarantino’s love for a similar narrative style. Except for ‘Sisu’, it looks like a fanciful add-on that doesn’t bring much to the table. And finally, as much as I enjoy watching Aatami killing the Nazis in the utmost brutal fashion, the movie doesn’t exactly raise the stakes or run out of steam (the climactic showdown between Aatami and Bruno comes to mind) as it progresses further.
But despite the shortcomings, ‘Sisu’ remains reasonably fun for a minimalist WWII revenge-fantasy war actioner.