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“Norwegian Ninja” is a truly inspired proposition, taking the real life story of Arne Treholt (a former Norwegian social democrat politician and diplomat who in the 1980s was sentenced to 20 years in prison for high treason and espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union) and turning it its head by suggesting that the man was in fact a master ninja, leading a group of operatives in defending the Norwegian way of life. Marking the cinematic debut of author Thomas Cappelen Malling, the film is every bit as unclassifiable and creative as it sounds, mixing politics, action, comedy and mystic philosophy with an inspired, documentary style approach. Produced by the same team responsible for other recent Norwegian cult success “Dead Snow”, the film arrives on region 2 DVD shortly via eOne, with a host of special features including interviews, a blooper reel, music video, several behind the scenes docs and other extras.
The film stars Mads Oussdal as Commander Arne Treholt, head of a secret force of highly impressive ninja warriors who live and train on a feng shui protected remote island, watching over Norway from the shadows. Treholt and his men face their greatest challenge yet when an anti-communist terror group called Stay Behind, led by his evil nemesis Meyer (Jon Oigarden), launch a series of attacks designed to be blamed on the Soviet Union in order to advance US control over Norway. While training his latest recruits, Treholt himself comes under attack as Meyer seeks to frame him as a traitorous spy.
This brief description doesn’t do justice to a film as rich with detail as “Norwegian Ninja”, which mixes actual events (Treholt was pardoned in 1992, Meyer was an officer of the Norwegian Intelligence Service caught with a stash of weapons and believed to be part of a CIA friendly Cold War anti-Soviet organisation) and far out fantasy with consummate skill. Indeed, Malling’s approach is so successful that the film really does blur the line between fact and fiction, and its “Star Wars” style themes never feel forced or come across as mere bizarro fantasising. As a result, the film is far more than a curiosity piece or the kind of spoof suggested by its title, and works well as a surprisingly intelligent and carefully constructed cold war spy thriller, with a plot that draws the viewer in and holds the interest throughout. The film benefits from a definite humanist edge, with Malling having obviously having put a great deal of thought into his likeable characters, and this too makes things less ridiculous than they might sound.
This having been said, the film is a wacky and frequently far out affair, with a great many laughs milked from the essential oddness of its premise. Tackling his strange combination of source materials with an admirably straight face and documentary camera, the closest comparison for Malling’s style is with the works of Wes Anderson, with the director showing a similar eye for eccentric details and finding the same kind of gentle humour in the absurd. It’s to the film’s credit that it rarely goes for the most obvious gags, featuring only a few scattered moments of slapstick, and though the comedy is likely a little leftfield in places for mainstream audiences, it never comes across as wilfully obscure.
For open minded viewers looking for something a little different, “Norwegian Ninja” is a hugely enjoyable and highly inventive piece of film making, whether they are familiar with the (possibly) true story of Arne Treholt. A bold, genuine original, it entertains and delights every bit as much as it baffles, and is a fine addition to the recent boom in Norwegian cinema.
Thomas Cappelen Malling (director) / Thomas Cappelen Malling (screenplay)
CAST: Mads Ousdal … Kommandør Arne Treholt
Jon Øigarden … Otto Meyer
Trond-Viggo Torgersen … Kong Olav V
Linn Stokke … Ragnhild Umbraco
Amund Maarud … Humla
Martinus Grimstad Olsen … Svarte-Per