‘Sisu’ Review: Sweat Wicking

A seemingly invincible former commando goes on a rampage in this blandly gratuitous World War II action movie.

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By Calum Marsh

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With “Sisu,” the John Wickification of action movies continues. This brisk, bloody World War II shoot-‘em-up follows the graphic rampage of a taciturn countryside gold prospector and former commando (Jorma Tommila) who, according to local legend, lost his family in a massacre and so “became a ruthless, vengeful soldier,” a “one-man death squad” with more than 300 confirmed kills to his name. Brutal and efficient, our grizzled hero has the blithe, stolid invulnerability of a video game character, dismembering limbs, snapping necks and patching up his own wounds without breaking a sweat.

“Sisu,” written and directed by the Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander, is the kind of thriller that’s usually described as “lean.” The setup is austere: During the final stretch of the war, a retreating Nazi platoon happens upon our solitary hero in the barren fields of Finland and steals his gold. They try to kill him. He gets away. The rest of the movie is about him trying to get the gold back. Nazi soldiers are shot, stabbed, crushed, impaled, decapitated, run over and blown up, images that the movie displays with grindhouse glee. You wince to imagine the film’s budget for pyrotechnics and blood effects.

To a certain type of viewer, 90 minutes of Nazi-killing violence may be inherently attractive. And “Sisu” feels designed with an audience’s fervent enthusiasm in mind: It seems to pause for applause after its most gratuitous kills. But 90 minutes of over-the-top mayhem means very little if the mayhem hasn’t been conceived with much wit or imagination, and what prevents “Sisu” from hitting the kinetic stride of a great exploitation flick is a style that feels pedestrian and oddly reserved.

For all its gung-ho violence, the film never feels fraught or nasty enough: It never risks true offense or tastelessness, never takes a gamble on anything that could be interpreted the wrong way or that might sidestep expectations. Somehow it makes killing Nazis feel pretty tame. Take for instance the hero’s dog. It’s a cute hound. Improbably, it manages to avoid harm. It’s not that the movie would be better if the dog died — but it is characteristic of the film to spare the audience the potential discomfort of seeing the consequences of all this violence fall onto anything other than nameless Nazis.

There’s something vaguely feeble about this cautious approach to what is ostensibly an unapologetic gore fest. By the time a liberated band of young female prisoners takes up arms against Nazi captors and blasts them to smithereens — the enemy’s fate never for a moment having been cast in doubt, the prisoners’ victory preordained — you will probably feel exhausted. This moment, like so much of the film, is expressly designed to make you hoot and holler. You’re more likely to groan and cringe.

Rated R for gruesome carnage, over-the-top mutilation, dismemberment and some strong language. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.

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