Jalmari Helander’s WWII action flick glues Inglourious Basterds to Mad Max Fury Road, and it’s a fist-pumping blast.
(This review is part of our 2022 Toronto International Film Festival coverage.)
Inglourious Basterds‘ Lt. Aldo Raine would be pretty proud of Jalmari Helander‘s gonzo spaghetti-Western-meets-WWII actioner Sisu; like he, the film is interested in “one thing, and one thing only… killin’ Nazis.” And so it goes with the TIFF 2022 Midnight Madness pick, a roaring rampage of revenge that commits to its stylized schtick — even if that means it feels a little thin.
Set in the Lapland wilderness of Finland in the waning years of World War II, Sisu wordlessly introduces us to a grizzled, mountain-man prospector named Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), a man who (we presume) will live up to the film’s title — explained in an intertitle as, roughly, “a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination.” It “manifests itself when all hope is lost.” He’s found a massive vein of gold, one set to make him (and his cute as hell poddle mix) rich beyond his wildest dreams. But there’s just one problem: There’s a nasty contingent of Nazis (led by Aksel Hennie‘s SS Obersturnfuhrer Bruno Helldorf) in the way, with a group of female Finnish prisoners in tow and a big old tank to pummel anyone they please.
Fair cop, though; Aatami’s one of those lone-wolf Rambo types, one Hennie’s Bruno recognizes as an old Finnish war hero called “The Immortal” — because he “refuses to die.” Not only that, he refuses to give up his gold and sets out on a one-man guerilla warfare campaign against the Nazis.
That’s really all the setup you need: Helander, who’s cut his teeth on tongue-in-cheek style exercises like Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, chucks heaps of viscera and droll Nazi-hunting beats throughout what is an exceedingly straightforward thriller. The big, yellow chapter title cards (“THE GOLD,” “THE NAZIS,” “KILL ‘EM ALL”) are a cute throwback to spaghetti Westerns (and the Tarantino flicks that cribbed from them). And the feature-length-chase structure closely echoes Mad Max: Fury Road, right down to the group of imprisoned ladies who make their bid for freedom with the inadvertent help of a brute who’s shown up at just the right time.
Don’t expect the same thematic depth as those classics, as Sisu is refreshingly content to be little more than an over-the-top Nazi-killing showcase. Helander and co. do their level best to think of the nastiest fates the Fuhrer-followers could possibly meet. Evading and stalking them like Rambo, Aatami unleashes all manner of hell on each of the troopers, shoving knives through skulls and lighting himself on fire just to escape capture. If you’ve ever wanted to see a man chuck a landmine at a Nazi’s face so it’ll blow him up but good, or slice a baddie’s neck underwater so he can use their lungs as a human air tank, Sisu is chock-a-block with those kinds of deviously fun setpieces.
Kjell Lagerroos shoots the film with appropriate grit, greyed-out mist and smoke clashing with the warm, orange sunrises of the Finnish plains. Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä’s score blazes with hard-rock guitar to set the blood aflame, and the effects (courtesy of Finnish effects house Troll VFX) are suitably outsized to match the sheer lizard-brain appeal of Helander’s experiment.
For as much bloody fun as Sisu takes us on, it does slow down frustratingly when it takes time to (try to) humanize its characters. That most often happens wordlessly, especially as Aatami doesn’t exactly have anyone to talk to throughout his solo slaughter; still, Tommila wears a lot of character on his face, closeups telling us just enough about his tragic past — including, naturally, a lost love — to give him more dimension than “The Terminator, but for Nazis.” Instead, we’re most often placed in the Nazi’s shoes, with Hennie and co.’s desperation (not to mention begrudging respect for their opponent) being the tenor of most of their scenes.
That’s all there is to Sisu, and I can’t say I’m that mad at it. I wish I’d had the chance to see it with a rowdy crowd, hooting and hollering at every OTT kill or gorgeously-mapped dissection of human anatomy. Admittedly, it loses a little of its cathartic bite when viewed at home. But once it gets to the midnight-film circuit, it’s the kind of uncomplicated bloodsport that ought to please my kind of freaks.