It’s not about who’s stronger. It’s about not giving up.
A dusty lone warrior rides across the frost kissed landscape into a tangerine horizon, wiry beard caked with dirt, eyes transfixed on an escape from the bloodshed with pockets full of glistening golden hope. Landscape scorched by flame and explosions, roads worn down by heavy treads and monolithic metallic Mercedes loaded with cargo and prisoners. Fascism eroding a homeland, death eating away at the natural beauty, a plague that pushes what’s left into a furious and unbreakable will to survive. It’s a strictly Finnish word, we’re told: Sisu. A white-knuckle determination, an unwavering tenacity and resilience that defines a national pride, to stand bravely in the face of danger. It is all we need to know about our warrior.
As Nazi forces flee Lapland to Norway in 1944, the stoic and silent warrior heads towards civilization in an effort to exchange his cache of gold nuggets for a new life, away from the unending horrors he has endured. Encountering a company of Nazi soldiers bloodthirsty for their own ticket to freedom as they see the hammer beginning to fall for the Axis, a violent cat and mouse game ensues, an ouroboros of advantages switching and shifting as they pursue him while he repeatedly finds ways to pick them off one by one. It doesn’t take long to establish the incredibly simple stakes at play, but when the stakes are escaping the clutches of parasitic fascists at all costs with the delirious energy of a pulpy grindhouse slasher, it’s an easy sell.
The John Wick comparisons are easy to make from the outside. A stoic, legendary, and seemingly unkillable protagonist alongside his canine companion carves his way through a staggering number of foes in pursuit of a singular goal, executed with flashy choreography and buckets of blood, but though it does constantly seem to beg for the comparison to be made, it never quite fits the mold. While the films of John Wick are propulsive and synth-laden, fueled by revenge and a hyperreal universe that constantly cranks its absurdity up to more and more dizzying heights, Jalmari Helander’s Sisu is careful, gritty, and methodical – a clean 90 minutes that builds carefully to each explosive moment of brutality with plenty of room to breathe in between.
Our protagonist here (Jorma Tommila) is silent, uttering nearly zero audible lines of dialogue throughout as he rips through the company of Nazis. He isn’t fueled by revenge (despite the film trying its best to create tense situations for his dog, it’s eminently obvious it would be too on the nose to follow in the footsteps of Wick for the dog), just pure determination, a representation of the entire fury of Finland burning to destroy those who are razing their countryside. Helander, known for his festive horror film Rare Exports (2010) in which a mining company unearths a violent primordial Santa Claus from a frozen mountaintop, takes the simplicity of the premise and focuses all the energy on the repeated dismemberment of every Nazi in sight, a delight that he’s fully aware has exactly as much mileage as there are inventive ways to commit the act. Split into six distinct acts marked by Tarantino-esque title cards, each vignette finds a new approach to the madness, from a minefield sending limbs sky high to a river turning a man into a vicious lurking shark claiming victims as they wade into the frigid waters.
The choreography may never quite live up to the heights that many viewers have come to expect from this strain of modern hyperviolent action film spawned by Wick, but what Sisu lacks in effusive hand to hand combat it makes up for in its gory effects, knives splitting skulls and flayed flesh oozing blood, taking arms from the hands of the enemy and giving the power back to the people of the land. It takes an effectively absurdist route in its interpretation of its title word as it applies to our hero, repeatedly finding himself far beyond death’s door before he claws his way back to the surface to crush more of his enemies beneath the weight of a speeding tank. Disbelief quickly spins to acceptance of his apparent invulnerability, the lack of threat to him bordering on removing the impact of any action he takes. But these details seem tertiary to the action at the forefront – you’d rather he survive all manner of brain crushing, body obliterating death sentence if it means he can return to tear them all limb from limb. There’s not much more you can ask for from it, but what’s there does a damn fine job.