The Ninja Mission

Director: Mats Helge Olsson
Krzysztof Kolberger, Hanna Pola, Bo F. Munthe

For the most part, I am glad to be living at this present time, and enjoying so many new things that are introduced into my life. The Internet, for one thing, has been a real blessing for me, not just with my ability to write reviews and have them seen around the world. But at the same time, there have been things that have disappeared (or are disappearing) that I am sad to see them go. The disappearance of video stores, for one thing - I much prefer sifting through shelves of DVDs and Blu-Rays than relying on streaming, especially since my computer keeps crashing and is unreliable. Also, I miss Hires root beer, which was once widely available in Canada but is now virtually impossible to find in any store in my city. But there are things that I never got to experience in the first place, things that I am jealous that people much older than me got to experience. What I am really talking about is the product that appears in my local movie theaters. Don't get me wrong - I find myself going to one of my local movie theaters several times a year and enjoying what I see. But there are some kinds of movies that were many years ago in frequent supply at movies theaters that you barely get to see nowadays. For example, there is the western. I love westerns, but Hollywood these days hardly makes any. What I would give to be able to see six-gun action on the silver screen on a regular basis. Another action-oriented movie genre that I never got to experience on a regular basis is the kung fu genre. When I hear stories of double and triple bills of Hong Kong kung fu films in places like New York and Los Angeles decades ago, quite frankly I get downright jealous.

My talking of Hong Kong kung fu films in the previous paragraph has to do with the kind of movies I never really got to experience on the silver screen that decades ago were frequently found in theaters in North America. And those are foreign films that happen to be genre movies. Nowadays, when a foreign film is released to theaters in North America, more often than not it's an arty or serious drama. How different it was several decades ago. There were not only those kung fu movies from Hong Kong, there were spaghetti westerns from Italy and Spain, there were sexy comedies from countries like Germany, there were family movies from countries like Mexico, there were horror movies from countries like England... I could make the list longer, but I think you see what I'm getting at. Why is it nowadays you are hard pressed to find "fun" foreign movies in theaters in North America? Thinking about it for a while, I have come up with a few possible answers. First of all, most smaller distributors in North America - the prime distributors of these "fun" foreign movies - started to go out of business in the late 1970s. They went out of business in part due to the major distributors pumping up their distribution and marketing of domestic movies. But another reason was that these "fun" foreign movies eventually found it hard to compete with Hollywood product at theaters. Hollywood movies became more expensive and slicker, and the lower budgeted foreign movies became less attractive to many moviegoers. Why pay to see a low budget foreign movie when for the same price you could see a big budget Hollywood movie full of big stars and big polish?

How I wish I was around when one could see a spaghetti western on the big screen! Fortunately, while seeing a "fun" foreign movie on the big screen is extremely hard, one can thank the heavens for home video. Ever since the VCR came around, there have been plenty of video labels The Ninja Missiongetting the home video rights to "fun" foreign movies. It's not the same as seeing them on the big screen, but one does have easy access to thousands of such movies. I watch these "fun" foreign movies all the same at home, sometimes reviewing an example for this web site. Recently, I got in my possession a "fun" foreign movie that was an example I had never seen before, The Ninja Mission. It's about ninjas, of course, but from a country you probably wouldn't expect to make such a movie - Sweden. Though I've been around the cinematic world a lot, the idea of Sweden making an action movie was both new and intriguing, so I knew I had to review it. Though the movie is Swedish, the bulk of the movie takes place in Russia. Somewhere in Russia, a nuclear physicist named Karl Markov (Curt Brober) has decided to defect to Sweden because he has managed to come up with a theory for a new energy source, and fears that it could upset the balance of power between the Soviets and the western powers. However, during his fleeing to Sweden, the K.G.B. manages to trick Markov into thinking he has reached Sweden when he's still in Russia. He is taken to a Russian fortress where he is encouraged to work on his formula. Shortly afterwards the K.G.B. travel to Sweden to kidnap Markov's daughter Nadia (Hanna Pola), and bring her to the Russian fortress in an attempt to make sure they'll get the formula from Markov when he's finished. All of this hasn't been missed by the western powers, however. C.I.A. agent Mason (Christofer Kohlberg), who had been trying to protect Nadia from the K.G.B., knows what's going on and what's at stake, and after Nadia is kidnapped from under his nose, his bosses decide that a rescue mission needs to be executed. Mason happens to also be a ninja, who has with him several commandos trained in ninjutsu, and he and his team soon set off for Russia. But it soon becomes clear that this is not going to be an easy mission for Mason or his ninjas...

There is a chance that when you learned that The Ninja Mission was a ninja movie made by Swedes, you thought that the idea was kind of silly. If that's the case, need I remind you that Americans have made some ninja movies, and some of them, like the first two American Ninja movies, happen to be a lot of fun. So I was open to the idea of a Swedish ninja movie. In fact, I was curious to see how the Swedish filmmakers would portray ninjas -would there be any entertaining twists to the classic warrior? As it turns out, that isn't the case, and I'll get back to that in a moment. The first question that needs to be answered is if Mason and his fellow mercenaries can even be considered ninjas. Well, yes... I suppose. They do dress in the classic black outfits that have them completely concealed head to toe, even when they are crossing terrain that is completely covered with snow. These guys do show off martial art skills a few times during the course of the movie. Also, there is one scene when the ninjas use swords to cut down a few commies, and there are a couple of moments when throwing stars are used. But believe it or not, that about all when it comes to classic ninja behavior. There are no climbing walls or throwing smoke bombs to make a sneaky exit, for example. Also, there are no other ninja goodies like nunchucks, bo staffs, or sais to be seen. Instead, these ninjas for the most part act like individuals in a SEAL team or in the Delta Force, using modern day weapons such as machine guns, time bombs, and grenades. I guess that is more realistic in this modern day age of ours, but it's all the same quite a letdown for those who sit down to watch this movie believing that they will see a stronger example of ninja behavior than what actually appears onscreen.

The fact that the ninjas in The Ninja Mission are not the classic kind that you find in, say, a Sho Kosugi movie, was not an instant death blow to this reviewer. I felt that the movie could still deliver the goods. But as it is, I am kind of pressed to tell you anything positive I found with the movie. One of the big problems is with the script, which is simply inadequate. Take the characters in the screenplay, starting with the good guys. C.I.A. agent Mason hardly gets a chance to say that much, especially anything that develops him as a real character. It's even worse for his fellow ninjas - they are given nothing to differentiate themselves from each other, and it's made worse that they all stay wrapped up head to toe in black for almost the entire movie. Things are not much better for Karl and Nadia Markov. We never learn things like why Karl left for Russia all those years ago, or why he and Nadia haven't stayed in contact all these years before their reunion, a scene that is utterly short as well as underwhelming. As for those pesky commies, the only one of them that is the least bit fleshed out is a guy named Ableman (played by Hans Rosteen), but he isn't given that much screen time to make him feel like a real threat. But the most disappointing thing to me about the screenplay for The Ninja Mission is that it makes the movie yet another Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union governments. Why couldn't these Swedish filmmakers made it a struggle between Sweden and the Soviet Union? This could have been really interesting, given that Sweden has long been a neutral country. A struggle between Sweden and the Soviet Union would have been a fresh perspective and given non-Swedes watching the movie a look at Sweden's possible struggles being stuck between the United States and the Soviet Union. But instead, as I've said, the movie chooses the same old stuggle once again, which might not immediately be bad, but what makes it bad is that the screenplay plays it out in a very familiar fashion. If you've seen one Cold War thriller before, you'll predict everything that happens in The Ninja Mission long before it happens.

With the screenplay of The Ninja Mission certainly not being very good, there are only a few other ways the movie could have redeemed itself. With this being an action movie, the path to redemption would have been good eye candy as well as good action sequences. I'll start with the look of the movie. The main problem is that much of the movie is as dark as a ninja uniform - the first 40 percent of the movie is entirely shot outdoors at night or in darkened interiors, and these dim locations here and later in the movie are not photographed very well. Still, there is some eye candy here and there, not just with Nadia's casual attitude towards public nudity (ahh, those Swedes!), but with the movie's fortress location in the last third of the movie. Also, the movie throws in some helicopter flying sequences that aren't bad for a low budget. Which leads me to the movie's action sequences, action sequences that I will give the Swedish filmmakers an "A" - that is, for effort. For such a low budget, and considering Sweden isn't a country known for action movies, you can see that director Mats Helge Olsson and his crew were really trying hard, knowing among other things that bloody gun wounds and exploding bodies are good ingredients. Unfortunately, the good intentions don't result in action that is actually exciting. More often than not, there is a real sluggish feeling to anything action-oriented in the movie. The vehicle chases are about half the speed that you'd find in a Hollywood action movie. The ninja action (such as martial arts) feels too slow and overly choreographed to pump the viewer's blood. "Slow" is also the word when it comes to the movie's ample machine gun battles, with Olsson using slow motion far too much. To sum up, The Ninja Mission simply isn't very good. Still, I know there are a few viewers who would find it of interest, viewers who find the idea of a Swedish ninja movie so nutty that they can't resist taking a look.... though taking with them a good deal of patience beforehand so that they can sit through the movie's often sluggish nature.

(Posted February 24, 2018)

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See also: Mafia Vs. Ninja, Ninja, Sakura Killers