Running time: 77 mins
Director: Thomas Cappelen Malling
Starring: Mad Ousdal, Jon Oigarden, Trond-Viggo Torgersen
Genre: Action, Comedy
Most Scandinavians of a certain age will remember Commander Arne Treholt, a Norwegian officer who was arrested at the height of the Cold War for conspiring with the Russians. The rest of us will have to rely on Wikipedia to be brought up to speed on what Thomas Cappelen Malling’s film's about. Norwegian Ninja takes a look at the “true story” of Treholt and corrects history to tell how this brave Commander was actually part of His Majesty’s Ninja Force who were fighting against Russian and American invasion (through Operation Stay Behind) to keep Norway free and independent.
I have a long standing relationship with this film, it was programmed for the opening weekend of the third season of the Movie Bar – the season that never actually happened. It spoke to me, not of absurdity, like most who read the synopsis but as a love letter to a handful of cinematic genres I hold dear to my heart. The films pseudo-biographical stand point is an interesting hook almost certain to gather the film an immediate audience but it is not the be all and end all of Malling’s film. The first time director manages to capture the aura of an era as the colour palette of the film is almost a little too fresh and vibrant, it’s a trait that allows him to merge it seamlessly with stock footage from Norwegian news reports but it’s Malling’s other touches that are the most pleasing.
The film carries a beautiful balance, and balance is the key word here, between two very distinctive genres. One from the west and one from the east. The Ian Fleming like influences of Norwegian Ninja are executed incredibly well. Everything from the framing, use of camera and awareness of the limitations of CGI is perfectly balanced. The sequence as the Ninja Force track a submarine under water of submergible bikes showcases the natural ability that the first time director has not to mention his obvious love of the ‘Spy film’. Similarly the mysterious ways of the ninja are wonderfully ludicrous and over the top. They point to an era of Asian cinema that showcased some truly amazing demonstrations of physical prowess, from the Shaw Brothers and their abundance of wire work to fantastic-ness of Toshi Aoki and co’s work on Saiyûki (Monkey) the oriental influence is as great as the west. It’s all sky diving suits and command centres guarded by Feng Shui and it should/would probably jar if it wasn’t for the conviction of director and cast as their straight delivery propels it over the line. The fight sequences are extremely well choreographed and have a healthy mix of close quarters hand to hand (with proper bone splitting contact) and the graceful almost dance-like showy style we’re typically used to seeing in The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin or the Lone Wolf and Cub films.
Mads Ousdal (Arne Treholt) is a brilliant piece of casting. He cuts more than a passing resemblance with the real life Treholt but that’s not what’s great about him. As an actor there’s many ways in which you could play a role like this, given all the real life history that’s well documented about the man, but what Ousdal does is play simply what’s on the page. It’s wonderful and probably counter intuitive to an actor but at no point does he never seem to be tipping a wink to the audience or trying to explain his portray. It’s rare to see such an honest performance of a polarising historical figure but it works extremely well. Amund Maarud (as Bumblebee) similarly gives a great performance, he’s highlighted early on by Treholt as “potentially the greatest ninja ever” and is store is one of self doubt and a call to a great destiny. It’s classic martial arts movie stuff.
I like the story, I like the use of the Treholt legend and the idea that the CIA are running a fake terrorism operation bombing cities across Europe in order to get their citizens in line against the great threat of Communism and I like how our protagonists are effectively fighting a war on three fronts, with the own military and intelligence services wanting to enact Operation Stay Behind. It’s handled in such a way that it’s not just a European dig at the continuing war in Iraq, a war we were told had reached Mission Accomplished over a decade ago…I remember there was a banner and everything. The truth is this is not a mean spirited movie, it’s a film that takes great delight in sending up it’s own narrative points in order to showcase the great conventions and stylistics of the genres it’s tipping it’s hat to. If there was any criticism of the film it would be over pacing as it started a little slow, had moments that needed another gear (which I wholly believe the film had in it). It’s a gear that we, as fans of these genres, have come to expect over the last few decades but regardless of such it’s an incredibly enjoyable and accomplished debut outing from a director with a distinctive style and a love of genre cinema.