Set in the 1944 ruins dotting the Finnish landscape during World War II, the deliriously fun violence of the extravagant exploitation war flick “Sisu” is deeply nationalistic. Painted in the surprisingly reverent iconography of the prospector, the grizzled, bearded Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila)—fashioned in a simple woolen shirt and suspenders—exists out of place and time when he arrives at a quaint stream. With his horse and little gray dog by his side, he goes through what’s probably a familiar routine: He crouches down in the stream with his gold pan, sifting through the water for specks of gold. In it, he discovers a tiny nugget. He begins to dig holes, excavating the land as gunfire and exploding shells encroach upon his antiquated site. When he finally strikes the motherload, the gold’s glow is enough for him to fall back, crying tears of ecstasy.
The word “sisu” is nearly untranslatable, but its closest meaning suggests an unbreakable determination, one that seems to even stave off death. Determination is exactly what Korpi will need when, on his way home with his fortune of nuggets hanging on his horse’s saddlebag, he comes across a band of sullen Nazis. The Nazis are hauling a kind of “treasure” (though these captives are not treated as such), a cadre of Finnish women. Despite his best efforts, the soldiers discover his loot, setting off a fight for the mined prize.
It would be easy to watch writer/director Jalmari Helander’s viciously bloody flick for its exploitation cinema, spaghetti Western, and 1980s action roots, which owes its riches to Sergio Leone’s films and “Rambo: First Blood,” respectively. The man of few words character that Tommila portrays is certainly cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name. Similar to Rambo, he also carries an unlikely resume: Korpi is a former special forces soldier so prolific in his murdering of Russians during the Winter War (he purportedly has killed 300 of them to avenge the murder of his wife and daughter) that they consider him an unbeatable ghost. That information, however, isn’t enough to deter the German company’s savage commander Bruno (Aksel Hennie). With the war nearing its end and the specter of war crimes looming large, Bruno sees the gold as his ticket out of future punishment. In their struggle, the film piles bodies as high as a Rambo death count. But “Sisu” is more than its enjoyable carnage.
Conventionally, prospectors have been symbolic harbingers of colonization and land theft. They arrive to siphon the vital resources of an area belonging to a local indigenous population. In America, gold rushes have been an extension of manifest destiny. But Helander subtly shifts such historical expectations.
It’s telling, for instance, how Helander and cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos capture the grim Finnish landscape: a desolate hellscape ravaged by craters, villages burned asunder, composed of bodies hanging from telephone poles. The country’s entire infrastructure, from the ground to its forms of communication, has been broken by bullets, bombs, and landmines. When Korpi breaks the tranquil ground around the stream to open the film, digging holes that look like craters, he isn’t doing so to smash its physical definition. He is a local man who can be interpreted as taking up the gold to protect one of his country’s few remaining resources. The Nazis are, of course, rendered as the colonizers, attempting to steal the lone treasure they haven’t destroyed in this country. It’s a thrilling subversion of the historical image of the prospector to deploy a deeply nationalistic message.
When the Nazis commandeer his gold, the fight to retrieve the precious substance imbues this hero with a near-supernatural determination that is as caked on as the blood and mud that finds a home in the crevices of his face. He fights across roads populated by landmines; he survives a hanging; he slices men’s throats underwater to use their escaping air bubbles for breathing so he might avoid capture. His otherworldly strength and resolve provide wonderful laughs, allowing the viewer to take immense pleasure in the gore and carnage dripping from every corner of the frame. Even the narrative’s chapter titles, simple and direct signifiers such as “Minefield” and “The Legend,” along with the movie’s brooding score, possess a similar dogged pursuit to Korpi’s undaunted will.
The journey to retrieve his treasure also mixes with the plight of the Finnish women the Nazis hold hostage as objects of rape. Their fate and freedom, similar to the gold and not unlike the women in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” is another resource the imperialistic Nazis have colonized. Like Korpi, these women (like Mimosa Willamo) have few lines. And yet, they are not flat characters, even as they exist purely as symbols. That’s because Helander has cast actors such as Willamo, Tommila, and Hennie, whose visages are so hardened they evoke the difficult, tortured, and hellish histories of their respective characters without needing much backstory.
“Sisu” is also outlandishly entertaining, mostly because, contrary to its deeper themes, it isn’t afraid to be nonsensical. The film holds the kind of dumb, action beats and inventive kills, hokey yet fun dialogue that Hollywood used to be so good at producing. It remembers that villains can be wholly evil and that heroes can be bulletproof but still be engaging. “Sisu” doesn’t find the need to explain every plot point and doesn’t mind poking fun at itself. The film creates comfort just by taking you along for the ride.
In theaters Friday.