Just the title “Norwegian Ninjas” conjures images of black-clad dudes kicking ass in the fjords, and writer-director Thomas Cappelen Malling’s debut feature indeed delivers as expected in an intentionally cheesy sendup of espionage thrillers, old TV and Cold War politics. But in its reimagining of actual convicted (and reprieved) Norwegian spy Arne Treholt as a ninja commander defending the Norwegian way of life, pic is also erratic in its comic timing. Cultists and action fans with cockeyed tastes are the base for future sales and scattered fests.
Malling’s interest in Treholt dates back to 2006, when he wrote the book “Ninja Technique II: Invisibility in Battle 1978,” impishly credited to Treholt. The film combines the Norwegian Cold War-era escapades of both Treholt and Hans Otto Meyer, who was arrested in 1978 for building a secret arms cache as head of a shadow army, part of a vast CIA-funded network of forces dubbed Stay Behind. The latter story alone would make for a spectacular movie.
With d.p. Trond Hoines’ images digitally aged and featuring a nostalgic, yellowish hue, pic takes on the cast of a 1960s TV relic, summing up the arrest of Treholt (Mads Ousdal, ultra-deadpan throughout), but correcting the record by explaining that he is actually under orders from Norwegian King Olav V (Trond-Viggo Torgersen) to lead a secret ninja unit to battle Meyer (Jon Oigarden, a rock-hard nemesis), who reps a U.S. Cold War agenda harmful to Norway.
Treholt possesses magic powers, including being able to appear and disappear in a puff of smoke, but he can’t seem to shake Meyers dogged efforts to undermine him. Within the script’s men-on-a-mission framework, Treholt determines he must transform one of his slacker apprentices into a top ninja, and selects bearded, bedraggled Humla (Amund Maarud) for the task.
Malling appears so intent on keeping audiences off balance that he and editor Simen Gengenbach construct a nonstop pace that sacrifices a much-needed sense of humor for action. While certain sequences (a high-altitude ninja training session in the fjords, a Stay Behind bombing attack on the ninja camp) are crackerjack and hilariously low-budget, others (a “Thunderball”-like underwater attack) are simply confusing.
Pic’s best element is its blend of funky genre touches with the illusion of an archive unearthed from a time capsule, underlining the major contributions of Ludvig Friberg’s visual effects and Fredric Vogel’s soundwork.