Film review by: Witney Seibold
I’m trying to think of an American equivalent to Norway’s Arne Treholt, a man who, during the Cold War, worked for the Norwegian secret service, and ended up going to jail (and is still in jail to this day) for selling secrets to the Russians, which led to the destruction of an off-shore oil rig. My mind jumps to Oliver North, although he never went to prison. Or maybe Scooter Libby. Picture, then, if you will, a film about Scooter Libby, wherein he is not only a soldier, but a super-efficient ninja master, with the power to teleport and access to super-advanced military technology like underwater motorcycles, and you’ll have a good idea of what Thomas Cappellen Malling‘s action satire “Norwegian Ninja” is like. Think “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” with some ironic political heft.
“Norwegian Ninja,” you see, recasts a disgraced Cold War traitor as a hardworking undercover ninja hero. Arne Treholt, in the movie (played by Mads Ousdal), is a silent Zen warrior who lives in a peaceful island out in the fjords of Norway with his equally peaceful band of ninja trainees. They raise animals, become one with nature, and learn the deadly ninja skills we’ve all learned from the movies. Their base is protected by some clever feng shui; anyone who approaches them will become suddenly ill or unlucky. They are an independent sect, although they report to a mysterious and none-too-scrupulous Norwegian spy organization. If for this shadowy sub-CIA that our ninja team does to occasional job, sneaking around on the ocean’s floor, looking for rogue Russian subs. They attend meetings by appearing in puffs of smoke, and they are all constantly dispensing pieces of Zen-like wisdom. When they, in turn, become enlightened, their heads literally glow with a white light.
The plot is a little impenetrable, and I imagine it’s easier to follow, and perhaps even more enjoyable, the more you know about the Treholt scandal. There is a lot of talk of training a new ninja, nicknamed Bumblebee (Øyvind V. Kjeksrud), and a few amusing scenes of the ninja camp eating sausages, and doing some hard ninja training. As it stands, the film is kind of hard to follow, and speeds through covert spy missions with such a furious pace that it’s hard to tell what’s going on, which characters are betraying which other characters, and a lot of the film gets lost in a mess of plotting. Luckily, the film is just weird enough to keep even the attention of even the most ignorant of Americans. It’s a broad satire that takes the familiar tropes of American spy-themed action flicks, and uses them to parody the reputation of a disgraced antihero.
Consider this: The Cold War movies that I grew up with in the U.S. often featured muscle-bound, gun-toting badass hero types (often played by Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger), who would bravely fight off the Cold War baddies, sneering, and proudly standing for a ‘roided-out American ideal (the fact the Schwarzenegger is Austrian notwithstanding). The reality of the Cold War probably cleaved closer to a bureaucracy, wherein folks in suits were swapping secrets, the CIA occasionally killed someone, and no enormous ground battles were fought; in reality the Cold War featured a lot fewer rocket launchers than in the movies. What “Norwegian Ninja” is trying to do, it seems to me, is blend the dull suit-wearing side of the Cold War with the explodey, vigilante-from-the-movies side.
The result is, as I say, a bit sloppy, but it’s a genuine thrill to see a bureaucrat recast as an action hero. It’s also fun to see another country repurpose the well-known action tropes from American exploitation movies, and use them to define their own national identity. Ninjas, it turns out, are universal.