In 1985, Norwegian diplomat Arne Treholt was convicted of high treason for selling secrets to the KGB and the Iraqi Intelligence Service. It ranked as one of the most controversial espionage cases in Norway’s history, not only for its importance during the Cold War, but also for the debate that raged over the evidence (or lack thereof, as some claimed) against Treholt. Even as recent as 2010 and 2011, the Treholt case was making headlines as government officials investigated claims of evidence tampering (ultimately deciding not to reopen the case).
But what if the story was even more complex than that? What if Treholt were actually pretending to be a traitor as part of a secret mission on behalf of the Norwegian government? What if ... what if he were also the leader of a secret ninja force who acted on orders from the King of Norway?
Those are the not-so-serious questions raised by Norwegian Ninja, a tongue-in-cheek send-up of Cold War thrillers that doesn’t forget that it has a story to tell, or that there are characters we need to care about. This isn’t a film that decided to settle for being a broad Spies Like Us kind of romp; Norwegian Ninja explores some fairly serious themes, and has quite a bit going for it.
First, it’s easy to love the film’s magical-realist vibe. Treholt’s ninjas aren’t just a bunch of special ops soldiers dressing in black. They can appear out of thin air in a puff of smoke, dress a man just by throwing clothes at him, and even turn themselves into human defibrillators. They commune with animals, and their eyes fill with golden light when the reach enlightenment. Above them, the Norwegian night sky looks like a cross between fairy lights and Van Gogh’s Starry Night come to life.
The mysticism of the ninjas and their Edenic island camp are thrown into stark contrast against the realities of the Cold War, where fears of communism and American imperialism create a giant stew of paranoia. In the event of a European country falling to communism, covert stay-behind forces are already in place and ready to perform terrorist acts against the new regime. Some of these groups, however, are jumping the gun and sowing violence in order to ratchet up fear of the Soviet Union and drive countries into the arms of Western “liberation”. It’s a world of double-crosses that manages to reach into even the Feng Shui-protected confines of the ninja camp.
Through it all, Mads Ousdal plays Treholt with a little bit of a wink but tons of steely conviction as the film’s moral compass. He must act as a mentor to his troops (especially a bumbling and conflicted pacifist called Bumblebee, who Treholt claims will eventually be a master) while protecting Norway’s sovereignty against the threat posed by the stay-behind terrorists.
The film is the directing debut of Thomas Cappelen Malling (who also wrote the book that inspired Norwegian Ninja). Bankrolled by the Norwegian Film Institute, Malling attacks the film with enthusiasm and an interesting eye, even if things don’t always hold together. Models range from Wes Anderson-level beautiful to B-grade monster movie bad, while performances range from serious and dignified to wild-eyed and over-the-top.
At Norwegian Ninja‘s end, when all of the double-crosses resolve themselves, you’re not necessarily convinced that the film fully explained itself along the way. After watching the deleted and bonus scenes in the DVD extras, it’s one of the rare times that you find yourself saying, “You know, leaving those scenes in might have helped make the plot more clear.”
Even so, Norwegian Ninja is a fun, fun movie, full of such good energy that you don’t even care that you can see the wires on some of the model planes. Much of the story is told through the vantage points of security cameras, recruitment videos, vintage footage of Cold War newscasts, and even the ninjas’ own documentarian. The perspective repeatedly shifts as the movie threads its way through the thorny story it has built around Treholt.
Then, at the very end, there’s a scene of the ninjas in action—a scene so fun and full of clarity in the way that it shows the ninjas to be truly lethal badasses—that just tops it all off.