Writer/Director Jalmari Helander delivered a delightfully wicked twist to Santa Claus in 2010’s genre-bender Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Helander’s latest, Sisu, sees the filmmaker reteaming with some familiar Rare Exports faces for another crowd-pleasing genre-bender, this time an R-rated journey through Lapland near the end of World War II. The period action adventure goes hard on hyper-violence and has a sense of humor to match.
Jorma Tommila (Rare Exports) stars as Aatami, a former soldier turned solitary miner living out in the wilderness with his loyal dog and horse. When Aatami uncovers an impressive pile of gold, he loads up his haul and begins a trek to the closest town to trade it for cash. He crosses paths with a Nazi battalion led by the ruthless SS Obersturmführer (Aksel Hennie). The Nazis intend to leave Aatami for dead and steal his gold, but they don’t realize until far too late that they’ve just incurred the wrath of a legendary man willing to fight to the death for what’s his.
Helander breaks Aatami’s journey and subsequent war with Nazis into chapters, each one with the aim of topping what came before. It’s a steady and well-paced escalation of tensions and violence, driving the story across the land with multiple impressive set pieces and action sequences. Helander wants to keep topping the madness, rarely offering a reprieve from the raucous mayhem. His orchestrated action and gory antics get your fist-pumping from the first grisly and well-earned Nazi kill, but it’s only a light warm-up for the bone-crunching, explosion-filled grudge match that ensues.
Helander’s inventive ways not only progress the story but retain visual interest in a simple tale. Kjell Lagerroos’s cinematography and Lapland’s natural beauty lend so much production value and an epic quality to this massively violent action adventure. Sisu provides ample backgrounds for Aatami to take advantage of in his fight; minefields, lakes, burning villages, mud pits, and so much more. Each set piece showcases another lethal skill in Aatami’s repertoire.
The action prowess on display elevates the barebones narrative and makes it so much fun. Helander’s Nazis are pure evil, drawing ire from their first entrance to ensure maximum glee at their violent and oft-gruesome demises. A truckload of captive women serves to underscore the deplorable antagonists, though never gratuitously, but also to flesh out the legendary status of their newfound enemy.
Aatami is a man of no words; Tommila’s star performance is entirely physical. And what a grueling and impressive physical performance it is. The punishment that Aatami doles out and receives in kind will make you wince and applaud in equal measure. Helander’s protagonist veers more into antihero territory than a hero. However, he’s one with a sturdy moral code that makes him such an enigmatic and root-worthy character to take viewers on such a wild ride.
Sisu feels like a gritty actioner of yesteryear but with a modern sense of style. Helander manages to keep progressing this bloody battle in surprising ways. When you think you’ve reached a showstopper action sequence or gory kill, expect another to come along to top it. It’s that style and imaginative visual storytelling that keeps Sisu so thrilling. It’s also in the playful tone; Helander’s having a blast dispatching evil men in fitting and over-the-top ways. Even if you think you know who will be left standing by the end, thanks to the clear division between good and evil, there’s no predicting how it’ll all unfold. It’s a wild ride that begs to be seen with an energized crowd.
Sisu is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Editor’s Note: This TIFF review was originally published on September 10, 2022.