Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cult Thursdays: Norwegian Ninja (2010)

   “This hot dog is best.”

    The chroniclers of history are always the victors - the ones with the most money and power. But what about everyone else? What about the losers, the traitors, those left behind? Is their side of the story any less valid? Would they be any more honest in their accounts, or would their own agenda somehow work its way into the narrative? Judging by the inevitability of human nature, probably.

    Such is the basis for Norwegian Ninja, the story of Arne Treholt, a real-life Norwegian politician sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for passing national secrets to the Soviet Union and Iraq. In the 2010 Norwegian film, we learn the supposed story behind the true story: Treholt was actually the leader of an elite ninja squad, tasked with the protection of Norway, keeping a harmonious balance with his environment and forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for king and country. Sound strange? You don’t know the half of it…

    When I first heard the title, I’ll admit to being a little leery. Ever since the geeks have kind of taken over pop culture (or been absorbed and co-opted by them, more like), there have been no end of zany historical mash-ups (it’s Pride and Prejudiceand zombies!), and they’re starting to grow thin, speaking to a lack of interesting ideas; a bunch of young hacks who have no real-life experience to base their writing on so, instead, they throw crap on a wall and see what sticks. I’m happy to report, however, that Norwegian Ninja works beyond it’s wacky title, at once deep, thought-provoking… and a whole lot of fun. Quite simply, Norwegian Ninja is awesome.

     Coming from first-time director Thomas Cappelen Malling and based on his 2006 book, Norwegian Ninja plays an awful lot like a Wes Anderson film (especially The Life Aquatic). But although it owes a lot to Anderson’s style, the film goes to bizarre places that I don’t think even the quirky director has in him. The movie plays like a documentary, mixed with real newscasts and footage from actual events that took place in Norway, seamlessly (and often hilariously) incorporating them with the film’s own story. Treholt lives a mostly tranquil life with his ninja force, located on their top secret island that houses everything from leopards to moose to penguins. Being a ninja in the film means a lot more than just sneaking around and tossing out throwing stars; here it’s a way of life, one filled with supernatural abilities, gaining further levels of enlightenment (the characters literally glow whenever they become enlightened), and barbeque. Lots and lots of barbeque.   

    Malling handles himself very well, especially considering he’s never made a movie before. He’s got a true visionary eye, and a clear love of old, cheese-laden spy movies. He deftly incorporates CGI with practical effects, pulling off a look that we just don’t see in movies anymore. He uses obviously fake-looking miniatures and models for many of the film’s sets and GI Joe-like vehicles, not just as a way to keep the budget down, but to evoke the sheer aesthetic joy of movies like Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik (hey!).

    Malling also assembles an able group of actors to fill out the cast, many of them based on real Norwegian figures. Mads Ousdal especially does a great job as Kommander Treholt, not once winking at the camera, always deadly serious no matter how absurd the movie around him gets. He reminds me a lot of Adam West on the old Batman show, funny just by virtue of being so serious all the time. Amund Maarud also gets many laughs as young ninja recruit Bumblebee, a gentle soul who Treholt thinks could be the greatest ninja of all time. And Bumblebee is put to the test once Operation: Saga Night is instated, requiring Treholt to ask the young recruit to give up everything for the cause of his ninja brethren and Norway itself. And that’s just one of the themes put forth by the movie, the use and abuse of young people by those above them, taking advantage of their untainted idealism to further their own goals.

    Norwegian Ninja is full of such insights - Treholt’s ninja force answers directly to King Olav V, and they come into conflict with a team of stay-behind agents working in tandem with the CIA, carrying out attacks on their own country and blaming it on the communists. Such actions were actually put into play throughout the Cold War, although there’s no concrete evidence of the CIA’s direct involvement. The film deftly moves through real events to absolute malarky, and takes the time to comment on patriotism, fear-mongering, underhanded international politics… All with a sense of sharp wit. And ninja fights. The movie even ends on a poignant note, with a voice-over of the real Arne Treholt musing if he’ll ever get his integrity back.

    Even though it’s sure to befuddle many, if you have any interest at all in fascinating genre movies, you owe it to yourself to give Norwegian Ninja a look.

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