Sisu is a Barebones B-Movie Western — And a Bloody Good Time

Think Inglourious Basterds, but even more grindhouse.

Jorma Tommila as Aatami Korpi in Sisu
Antti Rastivo/Lionsgate
Inverse Reviews

Sisu is a meal made of few ingredients. The new film from writer-director Jalmari Helander is a barebones Finnish thriller that feels deeply indebted to not only western auteurs like Sergio Leone but also contemporary action classics like John Wick and Drive. Despite boasting a significantly smaller budget than either of those films, Sisu often finds simple ways of adding extra flavor to its story — namely, through a series of B-movie title cards and a full-throated musical score courtesy of Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä.

As disparate as some of those elements may seem, Sisu is often at its best when it is able to combine its Tarantino-esque love of cartoonish violence with the trimmed-down, quintessentially cinematic style of Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Helander constructs a series of old-school western standoffs that repeatedly culminate with genuinely exhilarating moments of over-the-topic, bloody carnage. These sequences, like much of Sisu, highlight just how uncomplicated great action setpieces can be, so long as the right ingredients are used.

The film knows, for instance, that there is something supremely cinematic about watching one man stand defiantly in front of a tank full of fascists. It ultimately has more in common with grindhouse flicks like Death Proof than WWII epics like Inglourious Basterds, meaning that Sisu also knows, even more importantly, that there just aren’t many things better than watching a bunch of Nazi dirtbags get blown to smithereens on-screen.

In Sisu, one Nazi squadron decides to cross the wrong man.

Antti Rastivo/Lionsgate

As its opening narration informs us, Sisu takes place near the tail end of World War II and follows a miner named Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) as he tries to make his way across the Finnish Lapland in order to cash in the chunks of gold he’s recently stumbled upon. His quest is complicated by the presence of a squad of Nazi soldiers, led by the villainous Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie), who have been tasked with destroying every remnant of normal Finnish life that they find along their journey toward Norway. When Aatami takes down a group of greedy Nazis on his own, he unknowingly makes an enemy of Bruno, who makes it his singular mission to hunt down Tommila’s fearsome Finnish miner and take his gold for himself.

From there, Sisu follows Aatami as he is relentlessly pursued by Bruno and his Nazi soldiers. The film, in other words, essentially adopts an episodic structure, one that bounces swiftly from each deadly encounter between its protagonist and antagonist to another. Helander, thankfully, embraces the skeletal nature of Sisu’s story and keeps the film to a lean 91 minutes. In doing so, he not only prevents Sisu from overstaying its welcome but also stops himself from stretching its story too far.

From its stoic protagonist to its simple, man-on-the-run plot, Sisu wears its Western influences on its sleeve.

Antti Rastivo/Lionsgate

The film is a well-paced man-on-the-run thriller that never makes the mistake of pausing between its action setpieces for too long. While there are moments where it seems like the only thing that’s keeping Tommila’s Aatami alive is his own plot armor, too, Helander manages to throw enough challenges at his largely silent protagonist that feel different enough from each other to stop Sisu from ever feeling overly repetitive or boring.

In true western fashion, Helander refrains from offering viewers too clear of a view into his protagonist’s mind. Over the course of the film, Tommila speaks nary a line of dialogue — turning in a performance of few words that would make Clint Eastwood proud. Tommila’s performance is so physically impressive and emotionally present, in fact, that Sisu could have easily gotten away without revealing any information about his character’s past. The film doesn’t do that — a midpoint exposition dump builds up Aatami’s legacy in an intentionally John Wick-esque fashion — and it loses a bit of its own mystique by choosing to pull the curtain back on the identity of its rugged hero.

Sisu tries to bite off a bit more than it can chew in its final third.

Antti Rastivo/Lionsgate

In its third act, Sisu also makes the same mistake as many of its blockbuster contemporaries by stretching the size and scale of its action sequences to an unnecessarily absurd degree. Rather than staying true to its barebones western roots, the film tries to deliver a climactic set piece that feels like it would fit in better in a high-concept thriller like Speed or even a superhero movie. The film’s third act is, consequently, its least effective, despite featuring some of its most brutal kills and memorable sight gags.

While Tommila’s commanding performance helps anchor Sisu’s story in his character’s gnarled perspective, too, the film’s other performers don’t get to shine quite as much. Hennie embraces the sliminess of his antagonist, but Helander’s script does little to separate Bruno from the myriad of other Nazi villains that have appeared on-screen over the years. Although Mimosa Willamo is given one memorable moment in the spotlight, her character, Aino, as well as the other Finnish women who have been taken prisoner by Hennie’s Bruno, aren’t fleshed out or developed all that deeply, either. In the end, the women feel like they’re included in Sisu solely so that Helander can deliver the rousing but unearned moment in which they finally get to reclaim some of their power.

These flaws prevent Sisu from reaching the same cinematic heights as some of its inspirations. They don’t, however, stop it from delivering the kind of thrilling experience that action fans will likely go into it wanting. Even in the moments when its ambitions seem to far exceed its reach, Sisu is still able to return to the formula that made it such an alluring film in the first place. Once its central conflict has kicked off, the movie is able to hit more than enough beats of explosive, gold-miner-on-Nazi violence to justify its price of admission.

Sisu hits theaters on April 28.

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