Friday 1 September 2023

On DVD: "Sisu"

The Finnish writer-director Jalmari Helander is evidently one of those pitchmen any industry needs, perennially bounding into boardrooms with pockets full of
I've got this idea and let me tell you a story. In his international breakthrough, 2010's festive-themed horror Rare Exports, the ideas were far stronger than the execution, not that the latter stopped the film from touring the globe and becoming a leftfield Christmas novelty hit. 2014's family movie Big Game, pairing the leader of the free world with a common-or-garden child in the Scandie wilderness, reinforced its idea with a budget and Samuel L. Jackson, only to go AWOL at the box office. But Helander's Sisu has a terrific idea - Nazis versus a grizzled prospector - given treatment just meat-and-potatoes enough to pull the whole thing off. An opening graphic explains that title: sisu is apparently a regional quality, resistant to full translation, which gestures in the direction of backs-to-the-wall courage and life-and-death perseverance. (Coventry City fans, who've just seen their club crawl out from under a conglomerate of the same name, will have their own interpretation.) A wordless prologue, like There Will Be Blood's opening act relocated to a half-frozen north, introduces us to our resourceful hero Aatami (Jorma Tommila), a beardy loner bearing some resemblance to those characters played in mid-20th century Westerns by Walter Huston. Then the Messerschmitts buzz above his head and jackboots hit the ground, threatening both Finland's natural resources and its cherished serenity. Here, Helander's war movie brushes up against something genuinely novel: it grasps that, among their many other crimes, the Nazis - with their tanks and their trucks and their endless fucking shooting - were staging a blitzkrieg on some folks' much-sought after peace and quiet.

The take-no-prisoners pushback that follows is as preposterous as those one-man-against-the-world titles Chuck Norris made for Cannon Films in the 1980s, but it also has a widescreen heft and a B-movie brevity in its favour. Helander is plainly a nature boy outside the boardroom, setting his carnage against bleakly beautiful Finnish backdrops. Yet he supplements his greenness with a comic artist's compositional sense; the film's the work of a kid who went outside to do his drawings. Dynamic close-ups suggest panels from a summer-holiday edition of Victor or Boys' Own: there's some especially cherishable, Leone-ish business involving a noose slung over the sign of an abandoned filling station, and a nice, sniggering sight gag when a tank gun brusquely parts the canvas of a truck carrying townswomen towards an uncertain future. (Rest easy, nervous readers: the intruders get what's coming to them.) We're never too far from Inglourious Basterds - Helander encourages the comparison by deploying a familiar font for his chapter headings - but Sisu is an Inglourious Basterds that prefers action to words; cutting to the chase wherever possible, it gets on with its own premise, where Tarantino bogged down in his own voice.

A stall is set out with an early setpiece in which Aatami sees off an entire platoon singlehandedly; the most-discussed kill scene (repurposing a landmine as an especially lethal Frisbee) is tossed away inside half an hour; and even an expository flashback, revealing how and when our hero earned the nickname The Immortal, passes in the blink of an eye, tautly stitched into a film that proceeds in one more or less continual movement. At a time when even the dumb-as-nuts Fast & Furious movies feel it's their duty to orbit the Moon for the better part of three hours, this is a breath of fresh air, to say the least. A decade on, Sisu may be the first movie to have fully absorbed the narrative lesson of Mad Max: Fury Road, namely that there is cinematic value in going full pelt down a single straight line. Of course, it's also an exploitation movie made by someone eyeing a career for himself in international coproduction: that's why everyone on screen speaks English, why the hero's dog survives, and why the action never gets too grisly. (It is, still, a 15, and not an 18.) But Helander gets us into our seats, does for a shit tonne of Nazis in consistently entertaining fashion, and then gets us out again, somewhere between lightly tickled and broadly sated. At this point in time, it shouldn't need saying - but there is something to be said for this.

Sisu is now available to rent via Prime Video, and is released on DVD and Blu-ray through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment this Monday.

No comments:

Post a Comment