Anyone who knows me knows that I absolutely abhor violence in real life. I got goaded into a lot of fights as a kid, losing basically all of them, because it was nearly always me on my own being ganged up on by three or four others, if not more. Not only did I routinely get the shit kicked out of me, but when it happened at school, there were actually rules in place that punished me rather than those who hurt me, because while I was surrounded, tormented, and provoked, I would get backed into a corner where I would throw the first punch in an attempt to escape. That salvo was enough for me to get detention while the actual bullies got off scot-free until I was driven to the brink of suicide and the administration finally corrected their painful technicality.
For the longest time, this victimization festered in me, leading to almost obsessive fantasies of extreme retaliation. It wasn’t until I moved to another state, got a fresh start, and spent that entire summer reading Moby-Dick as a parental-enforced homework assignment that I learned to channel my anger in more appropriate ways and realize that violence was not the answer.
That said, stylish depictions of such measures can feel cathartic at times, especially now. We live in an age where authoritarianism and fascism are on the rise once more, where one of our country’s major political parties gives safe haven to white supremacists, and where all too frequent public massacres are carried out by neo-Nazis in the name of certain current and former government officials. Sometimes, imagining these truly evil people getting what they deserve with a bit of the old ultraviolence is oddly comforting, particularly for those like me who are now avowed pacifists. We won’t raise a hand in anger, but we’ll certainly cheer when we see a fictionalized version of it on the screen. It may be the only “justice” these universally despised and categorically evil people ever see.
Which brings us to Sisu, a Finnish film written and directed by Jalmari Helander (he previously helmed 2014’s Big Game starring Samuel L. Jackson) that debuted at Toronto last year before being released internationally in 2023 and taking the world by storm. Taking what appears to be inspiration from the works of Quentin Tarantino (there are distinct notes of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained through the use of western motifs and over-the-top history fantasies) as well as First Blood, this is a fairly simple movie that delivers exactly what it promises – a Nazi bloodbath. The concept of “Sisu” in Finnish culture is that of extreme determination in the face of adversity, which is precisely what this flick demonstrates, often in hilarious and frankly illogical terms, but the ride is so fun you hardly care. And like I said, given the target of this mayhem, there’s a strange satisfaction with all of it, which is both amazing and alarming from a societal standpoint, but which thankfully works just fine within context here.
In an almost entirely silent role, Jorma Tommila stars as Aatami Korpi, a former Finnish military officer who has left the front lines of World War II. In 1944, as the war begins drawing down, Finland has signed a pact with Soviet Russia to drive the SS into Norway. In the Lapland region, the Nazi soldiers execute a “Scorched Earth” policy, burning and killing as they make their way to the border. This is where they encounter Korpi, who has taken to prospecting in his retirement, and has just uncovered a massive amount of gold. Initially ignored by a convoy led by an officer named Bruno (Aksel Hennie), his sharpshooting lieutenant Wolf (Jack Doolan), and tank driver Schütze (Tommila’s son, Onni) Korpi is accosted by a group of soldiers pulling up the rear who harass him and his dog, and upon discovering his riches, attempt to kill him. One bowie knife to the brain later, the old man is already waist deep in blood and guts, quickly dispatching the group who threatened him, and drawing Bruno’s attention. From that moment on, it’s a straightforward slaughter as Korpi takes the others out one by one, rescues several women kidnapped for sexual slavery known collectively by the Nazis as “The Bitches” (led by Mimosa Willamo as Aino), and survives multiple injuries because he simply, as Aino puts is, “refuses to die.”
The effects and stunt work in this film are absolutely fantastic, blending top notch humor with chunks of viscera. Apart from the aforementioned head stabbing, we have kills via pickaxe, fire, tank, and land mines among many others, including one particularly hysterical moment where under the cover of smoke, Korpi literally throws a mine so that it connects with a Nazi soldier’s head to detonate, and the fodder’s blasted leg flies off to the side to land on another mine in the process. Tommila is surprisingly agile for a man in his mid-60s, getting quite a few close-up shots during the action pieces to suggest that he at least did some of his own fight choreography rather than leaving everything to a double. The pyrotechnic work on display is worthy of lauding as well, as many of these explosions have to be precisely timed, and you can tell that they’re not CGI (mostly because when they had to use CGI for an airborne sequence, the plane looked fake as shit, so you know they didn’t have a huge budget for digital effects).
I’ll also give a decent amount of credit to the writing and performances. Part of Tommila’s mystique as an agent of death is the fact that he doesn’t speak, yet he’s able to convey so much through body language and eye movements. Hennie and Doolan also give their antagonists an unexpected level of nuance, with Bruno conceding that the war is lost, and that their Ahab-esque pursuit of Korpi’s gold is their only way to escape a war crimes tribunal and eventual execution (either by fleeing Europe or by bribing officials; it’s never made clear). Even at the end of the second act (the movie is divided into multiple chapters with title cards, but it still follows traditional three-act structure), when it appears that Bruno has the upper hand, he and his lackeys do take a moment to show respect to their worthy adversary. It’s probably more humanity than actual Nazis showed at the time, and it’s certainly more than their acolytes show now, but it was still a nice touch.
When it comes to the story, this is one of the few exceptions that prove the rule when it comes to the principle of “show, don’t tell.” In order to keep the plot moving forward, much of Korpi’s backstory is told via exposition dumps from Wolf to Bruno as things begin to escalate. We learn just how deadly Korpi is, and why he’s chosen what he thought would be a solitary, peaceful life. The only other hints we get at Korpi’s motivations and mindset are some vague dreams and blurred images accompanied by bombastic sound effects. Because of this, everything else about him is left to your imagination, which in rare cases like this is exceedingly appropriate. The whole movie is about building up Korpi as this invincible superman who can deal out whatever harshness his wits and the surrounding environments allow. To give us detailed flashbacks to his time in the war would be to dilute that escalation and ruin the surprise of seeing what tricks he has left up his sleeve. It also probably saved a ton of money in the budget, so kudos for effective and cost-effective storytelling.
On the other hand, sometimes Helander goes a bit too far and stretches the bounds of suspension of disbelief a little too much. A few of Bruno’s men trigger land mines and die, so he sends Aino and another of “The Bitches” ahead to scout the path, one where Wolf has already established that they buried all of their mines, and yet no more get triggered, and the women don’t actually ever look at the ground to see if they can find any. Korpi sustains several mortal injuries (and scars on his body imply he’s had many more over the years), and yet he’s basically fine two seconds later. He blocks machine gun bullets with a metal plate, and is able to run away from a barrage of weapons fire without even using serpentine evasive maneuvers because suddenly no one knows how to shoot. Hell, he’s literally hanged until he stops breathing and moving for several minutes, and then suddenly he can struggle again once he’s left alone. There’s refusing to die as a matter of will, but the human body is still fragile and still obeys the laws of biology regardless of how determined to survive you are. Throw in the previously mentioned shoddy CGI during the climax and the even less believable manners in which Korpi’s dog survives unscathed, and there are just enough flaws here that I do have to dock the film a few points. I know most of the carnage is almost slapstick in nature, but I should still be able to take the product as a whole seriously, and there are too many moments where saying, “Just go with it” isn’t enough. Whereas the comedy of the Nazi comeuppance is fully intentional, these shortcomings don’t feel the same way, and I’m sure there was a way around them.
This doesn’t quite rise to the level of Basterds or RRR when it comes to stylized revisionist history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Watching Tommila ply his lethal trade against the one group of people we as a society have NO sympathy for (and rightly so) is an overall very satisfying exercise in popcorn fare. It’s fast-paced, eye-popping at points, and never overstays its welcome. There are times when it plays like a low-rent version of the John Wick franchise, but there are never any high-minded concepts (or ironically poignant mundane ones) to give you anything to think about as you watch. It’s simply, “Nazis bad, so they die in hilarious fashion; you are now free to turn off your brain,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. I had never heard of the concept of “Sisu” before this, and had only even heard the word in the context of the Disney character from a couple years ago. And while I have some affection for that other version, I can safely say that Raya’s dragon ain’t got shit on Aatami Korpi!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you get a thrill from ultraviolent movies? What would you do if you suddenly found 20 pounds of gold in your back yard? Let me know!