Norweagian Ninja (US - DVD R1)
Gabe spends a little time around the bloodstained Fjords of Norway...
Based loosely on the true story of Norwegian politician and diplomat Arne Treholt, who in 1985 was convicted of high treason and espionage, Norwegian Ninja re-imagines Treholt as an undercover, counter-espionage agent of the King, who trains elite ninja forces in the mountains surrounding Norway. The good news is that Norwegian Ninja is, as that description may have verified, a very silly movie. The production is full of amusing anachronisms, zanily straight-faced dialogue, and suspension of disbelief straining arbitrary oddities, like pen and paper that works under water, or Feng Shui force fields. My favourite bit of random wackiness is a series of infiltration plans that have been drawn out as a flipbook. It’s these minor, throwaway details that will endear Norwegian Ninja to the masses. The ninja skills are also quite amusing, and decidedly supernatural in nature, absorbing the memes and tropes that have come to surround the concept. Arne’s abilities allow him to appear anywhere in a flash of smoke, cook food so good it will make your head glow, and re-clothe a comrade with the flick of a wrist. He can even hook himself up to a car battery and become a living deliberator.
The bad news is that I found Norwegian Ninja mostly baffling. I assume that I would get more out of the story if I had even a working knowledge of Norwegian history during the Cold War era. I assume some of the non-physical, less obvious comedy is particularly funny because it is ridiculous, or particularly funny because it follows reality at an absurd time. Though a whole lot of the comedy supersedes cultural borders, I’m sure I also missed out on plenty of hilarity due to culture shock. The comedy styling is going to rub many viewers the wrong way, and despite straight-faced absurdist humour usually sitting among my favourite style, I have to admit even I was often confused by the tone. I also just didn’t get the joke a lot of the time, which isn’t a good place to be. The thin quality of the characters is the bigger problem, one owing very little to possible culture shock. No one is particularly well defined beyond their physical appearance and physical abilities. Plenty of similar films have proven that stylistic spoof does not require confining even archetypical characters to two-dimensions.
Director Thomas Cappelen Malling treats the film like a newly discovered, rough-cut artefact, mixing elements of the faux-grindhouse movement, mockumentaries, and Sam Raimi style hyper-kinetics. His storytelling skills are suspect (his big action scenes make no geographical sense, and I suspect the rolling plotline is muddled even if I had the wherewithal to follow it), but his energy is infectious at times, and more often than not his framing is interesting. The multimedia approach, which mixes handheld cameras with surveillance video, ‘80s computer graphics, and television interludes, generally confuses matters, but again, is engaging on a purely visual level. Malling takes the purposeful aging too far, as to deplete many of his crew’s best production design achievements.
These days I will always prefer a Blu-ray release to a DVD release, but Norwegian Ninja is shot in a similar manner to faux-‘70s movies like Grindhouse or Black Dynamite, so sharp details and utter clarity are decidedly unimportant aspects. Assuming this transfer is representative of the intended look, everything has been brutalized in post to appear old and worn (in my opinion, too much so). There is a haze of grain over every shot, and blacks levels are washed out and damaged by the hues around them, like a badly maintained 16mm print. I know this was all done in post because besides being a 2010 film, Norwegian Ninja was shot using high quality Red One HD cameras. The colour scheme here changes quite often, including a generally washed out film look along with bright yellow tinted mountain top scenes, cool blue tinted night scenes, neon red tinted action scenes, and even a night vision green scene or two. I have a feeling the vibrancy of these palettes could be improved with 1080p enhancement, but am not sure the filmmakers would prefer it this way. It’s almost impossible to judge compression artefacts based on the sheer quantity of multimedia and faux-damage style, but it appears that the really obvious stuff is intended.
This DVD comes fitted with a rollicking, loud, and fun Dolby Digital 5.1 Norwegian soundtrack, which shows very little sign of compression. The clarity and complexity of the sound stands in contrast to the super-simple, old fashion look. Once we get past the quite lo-fi documentary sequence the sound-scape opens up significantly as our heroes ride underwater, torpedo-based motorcycles, through and across the frame, creating a rush of multi-channel movement. The surround channels are constantly engaged depending on point of view placement (surveillance images are often represented aurally behind the audience), mountain set scenes feature glowing echoes, and the music of the club/bar scenes sounds as if it’s coming from a consistent source. The sound of large machinery and set-pieces is especially amusing in scale, considering that these special effects are all represented in the form of cheap and obviously tiny models.
Extra features begin with three deleted/extended scenes, ‘Trehold and the King’ (3:30), ‘You Stay Here!’ (1:30) and ‘A Peaceful Solution’ (2:20). This is followed by six behind the scenes odds and ends called ‘bonus scenes’, ‘Wingsuits’ (4:40), ‘Pyrotechnics’ (2:20), ‘Life on Grassy Island’ (4:10), ‘Home Alone with Otto Meyer’ (1:30), ‘Action Figures’ (1:00) and ‘Bloopers and Oddities’ (5:20). Next up is an interview with star Mads Ousdal, director Cappelen Malling, and producer Eric Vogel (13:40), who explain what a ninja is to the apparently ignorant Norwegian masses, explain the story behind the film a little better for the ignorant American masses (like myself), and their filmmaking process. Like the film, I find it hard to differentiate between the serious discussion and humour here, but it’s a little easier because there are audience reactions to go on. ‘Torpedo’ (4:00) explores the DIY process behind the films opening action sequence, where our heroes ride torpedoes underwater, including storyboards, pre-viz, construction, and green screen filming. ‘Skycar’ (2:00) explores the forced perspective flying vehicle trick, which is actually quite brilliant, followed by the green screen model work. ‘Kielland’ (4:50) is more of the same, and covers the SFX model work put into a central, oil rig based action sequence. ‘Fight Choreography’ (8:30) and ‘Score’ (6:50) rather speak for themselves. The disc also features a collection of four teasers, two TV spots, a standard trailer, and a music video.
Norwegian Ninja leaves me feeling like I finally understand those weird people that didn’t like the Kill Bill films. The majority of the homage on display here flew right over my head. The more obvious satire and physical comedy works, and the multi-media images are entertaining enough to satiate the curious, so it’s not a waste of time by any means, it’s just a little disappointing. The lack of a Blu-ray release isn’t really an issue given the film’s purposefully damaged look, and the aggressive Dolby Digital soundtrack shows few signs of compression. The extras are amusing, though not quite as educational as I’d prefer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 30th August 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0 Norwegian
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Bonus Scenes, Featurettes, Trailer, Teasers, TV Spots and Music Videos
Easter Egg: No
Director: Thomas Cappelen Malling
Cast: Mads Ousdal, Jon Oigarden
Genre: Action and Comedy
Length: 80 minutes
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