by Jef Burnham
Available August 30, 2011 on DVD from Dark Sky Films via MPI Media Group.
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This is the story of Norway’s most infamous traitor, diplomat Arne Treholt, convicted in 1984 of acting as a spy for the Soviet Government. Only, what if he weren’t really a spy at all and was, in fact, a national hero? What if he were the commander of a secret Ninja Force tasked with protecting the Norwegian way of life during the Cold War? Norwegian Ninja (Kommandør Treholt & ninjatroppen) dares to ask these very questions. And to show how this just might have been possible, first-time writer/director Thomas Cappelen Malling weaves together the scandals and disasters that shook Norway throughout the late 1970’s and 80’s in a way that seems, at a glance, to make a heck of a lot of sense— if you ignore the whole ninja thing, that is.
An action comedy like Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with a decidedly G.I. Joe aesthetic, Norwegian Ninja is quirky and humorous throughout. Unfortunately, I also found it to offer but a small handful of serious gut laughs— mostly revolving around characters appearing suddenly in a puff of smoke. The reason the film was generally unable to tickle my funny bone, I think, is that, as a person not schooled in Norwegian Cold War history, I simply wasn’t in on the joke.
What’s more, it’s actually quite hard to follow at times, and not just because of its unfamiliar historical content. The problem here is that the film sans credits is a mere hour and fifteen minutes long. And so much of that running time is focused on action scenes and news footage that we are left with precious few minutes to reconcile the characters’ convoluted throughlines with the wealth of information Malling provides about his version of ninjas. It’s ultimately an issue of style over substance. Mind you, I in no way mean to imply that the film is lacking in substance, for there is indeed far more substance than one should reasonably include in a film of this length, merely that Malling allows the film’s stylistic elements to take precedence of the story and characters. And with the history behind the film being so purposefully regional, the film becomes far less palatable, I think, to international audiences. That being said, I can pretty much guarantee that if you are someone well-versed in Cold War history, you’ll find Norwegian Ninja to be quite the romp.
The DVD special features include teasers, TV spots, a music video, a trailer, deleted scenes, bonus scenes (or additional footage) including “Bloopers and Oddities,” and 6 featurettes including an interview from Norwegian television with star Mads Ousdal, producer Eric Vogel, and Malling. Whereas the features are certainly numerous enough to provide a fine supplemental experience to the film proper, they are lacking in that the featurettes provide insight into the development of only five elements of the film’s production. As such, for someone such as myself, who walked away from the film wishing for greater insights into the events that shaped the film and the links Malling envisioned between them, there isn’t that one all-encompassing feature that would really enrich a subsequent viewing of the film.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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