IT'S NO joke. One of the best movies this summer is an action flick that -- get this -- comes from Lapland. Set 1,000 years ago in Lapp country (northernmost Scandinavia), "Pathfinder" is not only about Lapps, but by Lapps: writer/director Nils Gaup and most of the relatively inexperienced actors. Fortunately, it's not just for Lapps.

The ancient tale begins after a man tells us (in Lapp, with subtitles) not to disregard the third sighting of a reindeer bull (there has to be at least one reindeer reference, right?). While fur boots tramp through snow, a dog pricks its ears up as a child's voice calls. An arrow flies with cruel speed, and the pet becomes a carcass falling heavily to the ground. Back at the family camp, the child is told not to wander too far to look for her dog; her older brother, out hunting, can help when he returns. But just a few steps past the tent, she too encounters a group of dark-dressed men, and an arrow flies again.

By the time brother Aigin (Mikkel Gaup) returns, his family's corpses are being dropped one by one into a hole cut through the ice. As he watches in horror, a telltale ski slips from his foot and slides into the group of intruders, and the chase is on. Meanwhile, in another Lapp village, hunters prepare to slay a bear that possesses almost mystical powers.

If Aigin wants revenge for his family, the villagers want nothing more than to escape the Tchudes, the murderous ninja-like foreigners whose creepiness is enforced by their lack of subtitles. Only bear-killer Raste (Nils Utsi), the spiritual leader of the Lapps who has seen the reindeer bull, stays to help Aigin and a few recalcitrant hunters. But while the hunters offer the young orphan a better bow, Raste gives him this advice: Even if the Tchudes have forgotten, remember that you're part of an infinite brotherhood. Saving the whole is more important than destroying some parts.

If that sounds too Ice Age meets New Age, don't worry. The combination of frosty, heart-pounding realism and brief flashes of ethnic spiritualism is part of "Pathfinder's" Nordic charm. Basically, it's "Die Hard" with a heart, except the suspense and bursts of violence are all the scarier since you know there's no way a barefoot Bruce Willis is going to appear to save the day. And instead of cheering when the tundra terrorists bite the dust -- or rather, snow -- you'll breathe a sigh of somber relief, just like the Lapps.

Bundled up into "Pathfinder" are a bit of Lapp slapstick -- hitting a tree while skiing seems to be the rough equivalent of slipping on a banana peel -- and what could become the obligatory sauna scene, if Lapp movies catch on. But in general the treatment of this generations-old saga is respectful and forthright in tone, while utterly up-to-date in production and cinematography (gorgeous, and no, not all white snow).

The actors portray primitive people simply but not primitively. Mikkel Gaup's characterization is primarily in his blazingly blue eyes: They widen, well up and narrow convincingly as the boy must become a man to save his people. And Icelandic actor Helgi Skulason, who plays a particularly cold-hearted Tchude, is ready for Bond-dom. (Incidentally, a team of Bond-movie stunt experts staged the action scenes, including a literal cliffhanger.)

The pace may be somewhat slower than Hollywood's thrillers, but with a little patience, you'll enjoy seeing this northern light.