Film: Norwegian Ninja ***
Release date: 18th April 2011
Running time: 77 mins
Director: Thomas Cappelen Malling
Starring: Mads Ousdal, Jon Øigarden, Trond-Viggo Torgersen, Linn Stokke, Amund Maarud
Reviewer: Adam Wing
From the team that gave us Norway’s first Nazi zombie horror movie comes Thomas Cappelen Malling’s Norwegian Ninja. That’s right, there really is a film called Norwegian Ninja...
The most startling revelation of course is that it’s based on a true story - mostly. We’re talking about the true life tale of Arne Treholt, a former Norwegian Labour Party politician and diplomat convicted of high treason and espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and Iraq during the Cold War. Treholt's espionage is one of the most serious spy cases in the modern history of Norway. He was arrested in 1984 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, even though the Norwegian government pardoned him in 1992 after serving just 8 years of his punishment. Perhaps we should start again though, just in case you missed the part where the film dared to call itself ‘Norwegian Ninja’.
It’s fairly obvious that Thomas Cappelen Malling’s debut feature doesn’t take itself too seriously, but then, what would you expect from the producers of Dead Snow? In the hyper-surreal world of Norwegian Ninja, Treholt was never a spy. He was of course a bona fide Ninja, entrusted by King Olav to lead a secret force of enlightened shadow warriors called The Ninja Force.
Norwegian Ninja takes place in the time leading up to Treholt's arrest. The Ninjas discover that Stay Behind, a sinister NATO force created to battle the Soviet Union, are planning an attack on Norwegian soil. The Ninjas must defeat the conspirators at all costs in order to keep Norway free. What follows is a loving tribute to all things Bond, with gadgets, ageing ninja’s and skycars aplenty. Not to mention special powers, comedy penguins and hell with it, Norwegian Ninja has comedy penguins - consider me sold.
Dead Snow was a huge success because it arrived with massive crossover appeal, what’s not to love about Nazi zombies and horror comedy? Norwegian Ninja doesn’t have zombies, Nazi’s or horror, which suggests to me that finding an audience might be a little more troublesome. What it does have is comedy, but you’ll be hard pushed to find it if you’re not in tune with this style of humour. The comedy stylings presented throughout are more restrained than you might expect, either that or I just didn’t get it, but Norwegian Ninja comes with a knowing glance and a sprinkling of throwaway highlights all the same.
It’s certainly a curious beast, combining newsreel feeds, documentary footage and surveillance camera hi-jinx to jarring effect. Some of it works brilliantly, and the rest of it masks an obvious lapse in genuine humour. The musical score is often inspired, and gives the film a strangely surreal vibe that serves only to bolster the films oddly enjoyable nature.
Performances are strong throughout, and it helps that everybody on the other side of the camera is on the same page. Thomas Cappelen Malling refuses to go for the easy kill, favouring subtle humour and likeable characters over slapstick comedy. It’s a realistic approach - considering the fact that Norwegian Ninja also embraces absurdities like flying cars and Star Wars style telekinesis - that might be lost on a mainstream audience, but that’s not to say it isn’t a commendable one.
Unfortunately, the offbeat nature of Norwegian Ninja is likely to alienate the movie going masses. Thomas Cappelen Malling should be applauded for refusing to conform, but in doing so he has created a perplexing cinematic oddity. The cheap special effects, espionage trimmings and oddly affecting characters make for compulsive viewing at times; unfortunately any attempts at genuine humour hit and miss with alarming regularity. Maybe it’s just me but Norwegian Ninja should’ve been a whole lot funnier, and despite the best of intentions, Malling’s movie succeeds as a casually comical spy thriller that opts to confuse rather than amuse. No doubt many will embrace the films fantastical flourishes and offbeat eccentricity, but for me Norwegian Ninja remains a well-intentioned failure. If a film were to be judged on originality alone, we’d probably be looking at one of the strongest pictures of the year.
Thanks largely to a brilliant cast, Norwegian Ninja isn’t without an ample dose of charm, but the title alone suggests a more amusing affair, and at the end of the day, that’s my one and only criticism of Malling’s debut feature. When it comes to comedy, Norwegian Ninja just isn’t funny enough.