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Sisu Review: Non-Stop Nazi-Killing Action

  • An awesome action film where lots of Nazis get killed
  • Don't come to the theater seeking depth

Some films are hard to write about not because they're too complex, but because they're so simple. "Sisu," the new action film from Finnish director Jalmari Helander ("Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale," "Big Game"), is one such movie. A truly accurate representation of the experience probably wouldn't be written in complete sentences but rather in a series of impassioned grunts and laughter, punctuated by a well-timed "HELL YEAH" or "NO" or "WTF," ultimately leading to a conclusion of "Bro, that was sick!"

The plot of "Sisu" goes like this: In 1944 Lapland, an old man, Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), digs up a huge quantity of gold. On the road, he runs into Nazis, who want to steal his gold. The old man then proceeds to kill all these Nazis in the most brutal ways possible while repeatedly narrowly avoiding being killed himself. Throw in a little bit of character backstory — Atami is a veteran of the Winter War, where he killed hundreds of Soviet soldiers and became known as "The Immortal" — and a "Mad Max: Fury Road"-esque subplot about female prisoners of war seeking liberation from their Nazi captors, and that's basically the entire movie.

If you're looking for depth, see another movie. But if you want to see an old man kill Nazis — and why wouldn't you want to see that — "Sisu" delivers the action goods.

The universal language of action storytelling

Despite being a Finnish production, almost all the dialogue in "Sisu" is in English, with only a few subtitled lines towards the end in Finnish. This might have been done for the sake of selling the film to English-speaking markets, but honestly, spoken language barely matters at all in this movie. In the whole 91-minute production, I'd estimate there's maybe 10 minutes of dialogue — most of it either exposition or profanity from the Nazis, and almost none from the Aatami, a man of so few words he makes John Wick sound like a Quentin Tarantino character.

Instead of using words, Jalmari Helander tells this story through powerful visuals. Each of the film's seven chapters quickly establishes a clear goal (e.g. dig for gold, cross a minefield, "kill 'em all," etc.) and makes the most of that straightforward clarity of purpose to build action sequences that deliver an ideal mix of suspense, splatter, and satisfaction. You could watch it without sound and it would still be perfectly comprehensible and entertaining. If "Genndy Tartakovsky's Primal" had a World War II-themed spinoff, it would probably play out something like this.

Every action movie has to find the right balance of badassery and vulnerability for its hero. In the case of Aatami, the audience knows he's going to emerge victorious at the end of the day the second we learn his battlefield nickname of "The Immortal," but his close calls with death are painful enough that we're always left on edge about how he'll make it through. I must also warn viewers that one of Aatami's animal companions suffers a particularly graphic death relatively early in the film, which is probably the hardest part of this otherwise entertainingly-violent movie to watch — though thankfully it's not his dog, who remains a welcome presence throughout the adventure.

Whether or not this elderly Nazi-killing machine is an objectively plausible character, he's certainly one we're willing to suspend our disbelief for. There's a borderline-mythic quality to the protagonist that fits with the movie's title, a Finnish word that we're repeatedly told in the film has no direct translation in English but roughly means "a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination in the face of overwhelming odds."

This ain't a history lesson

"Sisu" might not go full-on fantasy like the "Indiana Jones" movies or enter blatant revisionist mode à la "Inglourious Basterds," but even so, this is the type of World War II movie you watch for pure entertainment rather than historical edification. There's arguably an element of propaganda to the whole enterprise; you can read it as an attempt to create a myth of nationalist Finnish pride in a setting where Finland has very little to be proud of. In reality, the country spent most of the war fighting alongside the Axis Powers rather than against them — even in this heroic fantasy, it's oddly telling our hero isn't fighting the Nazis on any ideological grounds but simply because he wants to keep his gold.

All this complicating context aside, there's still something cathartic about watching some of the worst monsters in modern history get what's coming to them in spectacularly gory fashion. The relatively low-budget "Sisu" might not have the same expansive scale as "Mad Max: Fury Road" or the latest "John Wick" installment, but it knows how to deliver a similar sense of coolness and excitement with a more contained production. Fast-paced and never overstaying its welcome, this is an ideal popcorn flick for those who can stomach the gore. You won't leave the theater having much to talk about beyond just listing off all the awesome moments, but sometimes a list of awesome moments is all you really need.

"Sisu" opens in theaters on April 28.