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June 2011

Norwegian Ninja

cast: Mads Ousdal, Jon Řigarden, Trond-Viggo Torgersen, and Amund Maarud

writer and director: Thomas Cappelen Malling

77 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
E One DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Ian Sales

Norwegian Ninja

In 1984, Norwegian member of parliament, Arne Treholt, was arrested and convicted of high treason. He was accused of having passed classified material to the USSR and Iraq since 1974, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. This was the worst case of spying in Norway's history, and generated much public debate - chiefly over the way the investigation was handled and the lack of real evidence. But what if Treholt had not been a Soviet spy? What if he had secretly been the commander of a force of ninjas, answerable only to the King of Norway? What if his arrest and conviction had been a plot by enemies determined to destroy this Norwegian ninja force?

Treholt (Mads Ousdal) and his troop of ninjas live on Grassy Isle, an idyllic island located in the fjord near Oslo. There they commune with nature, train intensively, and maintain a watchful eye on Norway, secure behind their feng shui shield. King Olav V (Trond-Viggo Mortensen) visits often, usually for the barbecues. But this is the Cold War, Soviet submarines appear regularly off the Norwegian coast, and someone is trying to provoke a war with the USSR. The villain of the piece is Otto Meyer (Jon Řigarden) and his Stay Behind organisation. This was created by the CIA to delay Soviet incursions after the end of World War II. But Meyer and his men are now committing acts of terrorism, ensuring that the USSR gets the blame, in order to encourage Norway to follow the USA's lead in everything. Only Treholt and his ninjas can stop him, so Meyer frames Treholt for treason.

Treholt must not only foil Stay Behind's terrorist attacks, but also stay out of prison. For this last, he turns to Bumblebee (Amund Maarud), the rawest ninja recruit. Treholt repeatedly tells Bumblebee that he will be the greatest ninja of all - though it's hard to believe, especially during the long training montage in which Bumblebee goes head to head in the mountains with the top ninja recruit. That Bumblebee does transpire to play a role vital to the story, in a fashion that fits entirely within plot and character-arc, only indicates the cleverness of the writing in Norwegian Ninja.

And this is indeed a smartly-written movie. Treholt was a real person, and the Stay Behind organisation did indeed exist. Real television footage of Treholt's trial is seamlessly interwoven into the film; real back-history regarding Stay Behind is cleverly integrated into the story. And yet this is not a serious film by any means. The special effects are deliberately crude and retro, with wires visibly holding up the model aircraft. Of course, many of the crude effects are put together with sophisticated CGI. But not all: in one sequence, Treholt enters the elevator which plummets deep into the earth to Stay Behind's secret bunker headquarters. To show the fierce acceleration of the lift, the film-makers swung it upside down, while Ousdal hung from the floor-become-ceiling.

The soundtrack is a work of genius, capturing exactly the right note of late 1970s cheesiness. The acting is both earnest and stoically macho, and entirely suited to the movie's tone. The fight scenes look well-staged but the actual moves made never really convince as effective; and nor should they. The production design is detailed and complete - even the complicated wristwatch worn by Ousdal was designed by the director. It's clear that Norwegian Ninja has been a labour of love for Thomas Cappelen Malling. He first broached the concept in a book, published in 2006, and titled Ninjateknikk II: Usynlighet i strid 1978 ('Ninja Technique II: Invisibility in Combat 1978'), and the care he took in creating that book has clearly been carried over in to the film.

Norwegian Ninja is, well, it's a thinking person's Team America. It's a pitch-perfect spoof of late 1970s/ early 1980s action films, and a complete delight. It's certainly one of the best films I've seen so far this year.



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