There are many films that it is almost impossible to prejudge because of their association with other films that you have seen and have a strong opinion about. If it is the latest instalment in a franchise, you pretty much know whether you will watch it or not or, if it made by a writer-director team whose work you particularly like, you will be sure to watch the film. In the case of Norwegian Ninja (original title Kommandør Treholt & ninjatroppen), I knew I wanted to watch it because the press release says 'Produced by the people responsible for the cult Nazi zombie hit "Dead Snow"', a film I like a great deal and was keen to see something similar.
I've known for a very long time not to take the claims in press releases at face value so, as this was the debut film by Thomas Cappelen Malling, who wrote and directed Norwegian Ninja, he couldn't have anything to do with Dead Snow and it took some investigating to find no one starred in both films and none of the crew were involved in both this and Dead Snow either. Eventually, I found that the only link is the production company, Euforia Film! Anyway, I didn't find this out until after I'd watched the film and, as I didn't read the press release particularly closely, didn't really know what to expect.
Norwegian Ninja purports to show the events leading up to the arrest of the Labour Party politician Arne Treholt, who was arrested in 1984 and found guilty of treason for committing espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and Iraq. Because the film is set in the early 1980s, it has a deliberately dated look and is far from the most polished film you'll see that was made in 2010! Rather than an ordinary politician and diplomat, the film depicts Arne Treholt as the leader of a clandestine Ninja organisation, based just outside Oslo on Grassy Island, which trains elite soldiers in various mysterious skills so they can become deadly Ninja who can carry out covert operations involving kidnap, demolition and espionage. This isn't a one man operation, but something done on behalf of King Olaf in order to defend true Norwegian values against the threat from the East.
This is unlike any Cold War thriller you will ever see as it is purposely comedic in its depiction of the Ninja training and the tasks they carry out in order to protect Norway as it (mostly) eschews CGI and any other modern filmmaking techniques in favour of (quite clearly) model work and stop motion animation. It is all about a bunch of new recruits and their training to become brilliant secret agents at a remote countryside base where all of Norway's elite counterespionage agents live and train using the Ninja as their model.
In addition to showing how the men blow up an oil rig without being detected, kidnap another agent and use their various powers to turn their hands into a defibrillator, appear and disappear in clouds of smoke and have a huge surveillance system over Norway and other areas of interest, the film shows elements of the Ninja training and such brilliant words of wisdom as: "You must let go of the idea of letting go" and "If the good Lord had wanted us to be vegetarians, all vegetables would he made out of meat". There are two aspiring Ninja who must compete against each other with the winner becoming Ninja whilst the loser remains an apprentice for another seven years. This competition, and orienteering race, involves them running up mountains, fighting each other and flying down a mountainside in wingsuits.
There's something brilliantly silly at the heart of Norwegian Ninja yet you always feel Thomas Cappelen Malling has a real story to tell so, amongst all the offbeat and almost Python-esque humour lies a very serious story. It is here where I feel the film would resonate more with Norwegians and other Scandinavians than younger British viewers who, like me, were completely unaware of the real life Arne Treholt, his life as a domestic politician and his arrest and imprisonment for espionage and high treason. Even knowing nothing about Arne Treholt didn't spoil my enjoyment of the film as there are so many scenes with quite brilliant and irreverent humour and those which appear to be a cross between Thunderbirds and Monty Python! It helps that the film is interspersed with news broadcasts which give you an update on what is going on in the outside world and updating you on the increasing suspicions about the behaviour of Arne Treholt, who is depicted as someone who spoke to the Russians and was passing information to the KGB.
This film is almost nothing like Dead Snow as it isn't a horror-comedy with very little serious on-screen violence (the violence that is featured is strictly comedic in nature) and the humour is much more slapstick and offbeat than that featured in the brilliant zombie film from a few years ago. As comedy-action films go, this is extremely enjoyable and very well-made and, once I had finished watching it, I went on the Internet to find out more about Arne Treholt and his real life case.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no feature commentary but there is still a decent selection of other bonus features.
Deleted Scenes (7:24), three in total, which are probably still good enough to be included in the film so I imagine they were only removed for pacing reasons rather than quality and well worth a look.
Bonus Scenes are, as the title suggests, short bonus scenes which range from a (quite probably fake) commercial for action figures to a blooper reel (which begins with a clapperboard saying 'funny s***'), a short piece on the pyrotechnics and a featurette showing the wingsuits in action. They all have the same quirky humour and are a welcome addition to the disc.
There are six Featurettes on Fight Choreography (8:27), Interview (13:35), Kielland (4:47), Music Studio (6:49), Skycar (2:02) and Torpedo (3:58). These are all very different pieces and vary from the more serious and informative (Interview, Music Studio) to something more light-hearted (Skycar, Fight Choreography) and they are all very informative, interesting and funny. Like the film, they are in Norwegian with optional English subtitles.
B-Roll (3:16) is some nice behind the scenes footage so you really get a sense of how the film was made and it complements some of the other on set footage as you can see where the cameras are placed and the various tricks they used to create the great visuals.
You also have some TV spots, a music video, some teasers and the trailer. These are usually afterthoughts which are quite easy to dismiss but, in this case, they shouldn't be dismissed and are worth flicking through.
This reminds me a little of The House of the Devil as it is a modern film designed to look several decades old and really does look dated thanks to the costumes, hairstyles and set design. Every element of Norwegian Ninja looks like it was shot in the early 1980s and the news footage adds to this as it gives a sense of authenticity even though it clearly parodies media hysteria by having the news anchors talking about throwing stars and a 'Rambo knife' which is excellent for slicing cucumber!
Not only does the film look like one from three decades ago, but it also looks like a low-budget film from three decades ago due to the model work, stop motion animation and the colour filters so some scenes have a red hue throughout whereas others, shot day for night, are green so they look as if they have been filmed with nightvision cameras.
As such, it would be churlish to pick faults in the picture quality, because any instances of poor special effects, unconvincing props or heavy graining are intentional!
You have the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo - both Norwegian - and they are both very good and clear tracks that present the dialogue well. Because of the numerous action sequences, the 5.1 track fares better than the stereo option as the front and rear surrounds are used well, as is the subwoofer. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the stereo track and, if you don't have a 5.1 setup, this is more than adequate and won't spoil your enjoyment of the film.
There is a quite brilliant selection of music - not your typical score - by Gaute Tønder which reminds me a little with the music Wes Anderson used in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
The English subtitles are very well written and free from typographical or grammatical errors. I don't speak a word of Norwegian so can't vouch for their accuracy but I did find they made the film easy to follow which is really all you need.
I wouldn't say the word 'unique' is overused when it comes to describing films - 'great' certainly is - but Norwegian Ninja is certainly unlike any film I've seen recently and can recall in any detail. It has a wonderful blend of offbeat humour, historical fact and complete lunacy and is, as the director freely admits, a film born of seeing historical details from the perspective of a comic book nerd who watches plenty of sci-fi B-movies.
In its quirky humour, it is compatible to some of Wes Anderson's films only without the large budget and A-list stars. This is a film that is very easy to enjoy and the extra features are plentiful which, coupled with the very good AV quality, makes this a disc definitely worth checking out for anyone who likes their comedies a little more quirky.