Calling an action movie “peculiar” might not seem like much of a compliment, but in the case of Norwegian Ninja there can be no higher praise. This highly unusual concoction of Cold War superspy heroism, real-life Norwegian political treason, Eastern mysticism and documentary filmmaking is a distinctive accomplishment. It’s also extremely muddled, but mostly from an overabundance of ideas. Every movie should have such problems.
Mads Ousdal stars as Arne Treholt, a man famous in Norway for committing high treason. He was arrested in 1984 for selling government secrets to the Soviet Union and Iraq, and served eight years of his twenty year sentence. In Norwegian Ninja, originally titled Kommandør Treholt & ninjatroppen, first time director Thomas Cappelen Malling claims that not only was he framed for this crime, but that he was also the leader of a top-secret ninja anti-terrorist unit who entered every room in a puff of smoke and dispenses enlightenment like it was a hot dog. In fact, it sometimes even comes with a free hot dog. Treholt and his team of super ninjas ride torpedos like they were motorcycles, barbecue with the King of Norway and run afoul of a top secret military unit that stages false Communist terrorist attacks to keep “the ignorant masses” too afraid to vote Democrat. Or whatever the left wing party is in Norway.
That’s… mighty peculiar. Malling’s disjointed directorial style, playful dedication to low budget special effects and slightly off comedic timing evoke obvious comparisons to the work of Wes Anderson (the back of the DVD even calls it “the Rushmore of ninja films”), but that’s a surface observation at best. Norwegian Ninja lacks the middle class melancholy of Anderson’s work. Without a greater knowledge of Norwegian history (sorry, it wasn’t in my job description), it’s difficult to determine just how subversive this drastic reimagining of Arne Treholt’s life really is. But whether he was the country’s greatest monster, a merely corrupted individual or a man wrongly accused, we are left with a film that’s more daring than anything Wes Anderson has produced to date. It’s also not quite as good due to a few minor filmmaking issues, a lack of insight into human nature and a bit of a cultural divide.
Malling directs the movie as if it were compiled from a stockpile of documentary footage, much of it filmed by an actual ninja in Treholt’s elite squad. The mixture of eclectic angles and visual styles gives the film an unnecessarily chaotic storytelling style that often makes it difficult to follow the action or the plot. And the plot itself runs into hurdles as Malling begins to reveal how exactly the heroism of Treholt leads to his incarceration. To give it away would be entering into massive spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that by the time Treholt is arrested his credibility as a genuine hero is extremely questionable. Malling of course was forced into this plot point, which seems arbitrary if you’re unfamiliar enough with the real-life events that inspired the film – as many American audience members are likely to be – that you don’t assume that it’s a foregone conclusion. The film ends draped in a pall of darkness that doesn’t quite fit the dorky charm that precedes it.
Norwegian Ninja comes to America on a tricked out special edition DVD from Dark Sky Films, which recently released such films as Wake Wood and Hatchet II. The set includes deleted scenes, “bonus scenes,” and a series of featurettes that reveal the jovial nature of the production, and are well worth a look. The presentation of the film is as pleasing as it can get, given the unusual visual nature of the movie. It’s a superb release of a truly nifty feature film, and comes highly recommended for all pretty much all audiences.
CRAVEONLINE RATING (Film): 8/10
CRAVEONLINE RATING (DVD): 9.5/10