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Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), digging for gold in the Finnish countryside in the action movie Sisu, looks back over his shoulder Photo: Antti Rastivo/Freezing Point Oy

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Brutal John Wick descendant Sisu promises more than it can deliver

The Nazi-killing action definitely gets grim

It’s 1944. The Nazis are being forced out of Finland, and they’re using scorched-earth tactics, burning down everything and everyone on their way out of the country. They’ve destroyed villages and kidnapped young women, and now they’re looking for more targets to take out their anger on after their humiliating defeat.

Enter Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), a grizzled, legendary Finnish veteran of the Winter War with the Soviets. He’s trying his hand at gold prospecting, and he doesn’t want much to do with the present conflict. As a Nazi battalion of tanks and vehicles pass him in the field, he doesn’t pay them much attention. But when a small group of Nazis attempt to steal his gold and kill him, Aatami breaks out his dormant set of murdering skills and gets to work, dispatching the soldiers with ruthless, brutal abandon.

That’s the premise of Sisu, the new English-language Finnish movie looking to capture the hearts of John Wick fans everywhere with its own version of vengeful “retired killer leaves retirement” action. “Sisu” is an untranslatable Finnish concept, as the opening text explains: “It means a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination. Sisu manifests itself when all hope is lost.” In this case, Sisu manifests through Aatami, a quiet, intense man who does not speak until the movie’s final lines of dialogue. Aatami travels through the gorgeous Lapland landscape, which brings a sense of the vastness of the Finnish countryside to Sisu, with the emptiness and desolation heightened by images of burnt villages.

A significant tonal clash holds Sisu back from being the kind of fun midnight action fare the relentless advertising campaign promises. Tommila’s grounded, silent performance as Aatami, along with the fairly conventional way director Jalmari Helander, cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos, and editor Juho Virolainen frame the action, suggest a more serious revenge thriller. At the same time, the booming music, the cheesy chapter titles (“The Legend,” “The Nazis,” “Kill ’Em All”), and some ridiculously silly action beats (such as Aatami hitching a ride on the bottom of a plane by lodging his prospecting pick into it as it takes off) place it more firmly in the area of ludicrously fun action fare.

Aksel Hennie sits in a tank wearing his Nazi regalia in Sisu. He looks upwards towards the sky. Photo: Antti Rastivo/Freezing Point Oy

Aksel Hennie’s menacing performance as the lead Nazi is appropriately repugnant — I was anxiously awaiting his explosive death from start to finish. I wish he had a mustache to twirl, as it would have perfectly fit with the tone he’s going for, a tone Helander only partly commits to in Sisu. Hennie has long excelled at playing characters with a sinister edge under the surface (Headhunters, The Trip), and here, he gets to just go all-out as a menacing Nazi. Sisu would have greatly benefited from Helander and co. bringing a similar tone to the rest of the movie.

The action scenes are brutal, showing many, many, many different ways to kill Nazis. There is something righteous in seeing scores of them dying in such visceral ways. The movie’s opening action beat is punctuated by a very satisfying knife through the skull. Many heads and bodies explode. And at one point, Aatami slits a man’s throat underwater so he can suck his victim’s oxygen out of his perforated trachea.

But Helander’s camera work and the fight choreography from veteran stuntman Ouli Kitti are surprisingly restrained in an action movie whose creatives were clearly delighted to find as many ways to kill people as possible. This holds Sisu back from being a cult action gorefest like Project Wolf Hunting — in that bloody movie, director Hong-sun Kim infamously used 2.5 tons of fake blood, and crucially maintained a breezy B-movie tone throughout the splatterfest — or something like the Finnish “Nazis in space” cult hit Iron Sky, which fully embraced its place as midnight action fare.

Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) leans against a wooden pole with a rope in front of him in Sisu. Photo: Antti Rastivo/Freezing Point Oy

Sisu’s creators were clearly heavily inspired by the John Wick movies, especially in the mythmaking around its hero. People speak in hushed tones about Aatami — a Nazi officer explains that Russian soldiers nicknamed the Finnish fighter “The Immortal” for his heroics during the Winter War. It feels essentially the same as the scene from the original John Wick when Michael Nyqvist tells Dean Winters and Alfie Allen the tale of the Baba Yaga, but without the dawning realization of futility (and gleefully over-the-top subtitles) that made that scene so effective and darkly humorous.

Sisu is aimed at an English-speaking audience, opening with expository voiceover narration in English that sets the scene for those who might not be familiar with the conflict between Finland and Nazi Germany. Bizarrely, even the Nazis speak to each other in English. No Finnish is spoken until the very end of the movie, which does remove some potential for a true Finnish alternate-history/revenge narrative. This and other choices leave Sisu stuck between two tones without fully committing to either, promising more than it ultimately delivers.

Sisu is now playing in theatres.

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