Long before Nordic Noir put Scandinavia on the action/thriller map, there was The Ninja Mission…
First of all, if you’re interested in this movie at all, it’s well worth seeking out Regissören som Försvann (The Director Who Disappeared) an entertaining and well-researched documentary about its mastermind Mats Helge, made by Melker Becker and Mattias Lindeblad. The story behind the film is arguably more interesting than the film itself and goes some way in explaining how such a terrible movie became so widely seen, so iconic, recognizable and well-known to ninja fans worldwide…
If you grew up in the 1980s and spent your free time in the video store, the image above – or some variation of it – should be stimulating your nostalgia gland pretty hard right now. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork that promises action and violence, ninja mysteries and lurid Cold War iconography. However if, like me, you were lucky enough to persuade your parents into renting it, the reality of the film behind the box was disappointing. It didn’t help that the initial UK release suffered a whopping 1 minute 1 second’s worth of cuts (pretty much the entire duration of the film that’s worth watching), all made by the distributor (VTC) prior to BBFC submission. All but 15 seconds of these would be restorted for Kick Video’s re-release in the 1990s but, even then there’s no hiding that the film is a slog to sit through.
The credits sequence is fantastic, loaded with ninja silhouettes moving across a red backdrop while gorgeous 80s synths blare and shurikens fly. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there as we plunge into a grainy darkness that permeates most of the film. Arguably some effort was made to give the film a stylish neon-drenched 80s look with a lot of blue and red filters applied to lights but it just makes everything incredibly hard to see. All the VHS versions I’ve seen look like this and, although there’s a marginally nicer semi-official bootleg DVD (uncut) from Horse Creek Entertainment that makes things a little clearer, it’s still a poorly shot source film.
The plot involves a Russian scientist named Markov (Curt Broberg) who’s created some kind of formula for generating energy and this could shift the US/USSR Balance of Power, leading to total war if it falls into the wrong hands. He’s kidnapped by the KGB and, elsewhere in Russia, so is his daughter Nadia (Hanna Pola). In order to save the world, the CIA send in Agent Mason (Krzysztof Kolberger) and a crack team of Swedish ninjas known as The Ninja Mission. This leads to a slew of loosely related action scenes and a triple-figure body count as anonymous Commies are shot by the dozen and left for dead in the snow where they apparently belong.
Along the way there’s a sickly sentimental subplot with Markov and his daughter rediscovering their love for one another; a gratuitous nightclub scene in which Hanna Pola changes into something more transparent and performs a synthpop song specially written for the film (this is less exciting than it sounds despite Pola’s admirably uninhibited efforts); a high-speed Volvo chase (in pitch darkness, of course); and endless inane dialogue that makes Godfrey Ho look like Harold Pinter (“There is some tea here if you want it” / “Wow, you sure have a way with women”).
There is a distinct lack of ninjing though. The Ninja Mission team show up in a lot of scenes but don’t perform any actual martial arts, instead mostly using guns or these weird blow darts that make people explode. All sounds fun on paper but even this level of (badly choreographed) action only gets going in the final reel which is, admittedly, very gory indeed. We get bisected heads, spurting stumps, flying meaty guts, chunky vomiting and the bursting of a bazillion bloody squibs but it’s a really long time coming.
Almost all of the cast and crew (including Helge himself) are among the litter of dead Ruskies in this extended massacre sequence and, to cap things off, the ninjas blow up a castle. No, really. They blow up a castle. It’s impressively ambitious in terms of stunts/budget versus talent but looks surprisingly lackluster considering Helge and his crew did actually blow up a castle. One of the bad guys is left to die in the snow as the helicopter leaves without him, his former comrades shouting “Keep yourself warm, baby… go fuck an Eskimo!” as they float off into the sunset (sadly not quite the closing line of the movie, but near enough). There’s some kind of final plot twist too but this only really makes sense if you’ve been lobotomized half-way through your viewing.
So yeah, the movie is bloody awful. So how come we all know about it? Well, the story of Mats Helge – “The Director Who Disappeared” as the Becker/Lindeblad doc calls him – is an odd one. The young Helge received atrocious grades at school and was repeatedly told that if he got lucky, the most he could aspire to would be sweeping floors in a factory. Determined to prove his teachers wrong he inexplicably managed – at just 20 years old – to shoot Dead Man’s Trail, one of the first, last and only Swedish cowboy films (this short-lived genre was dubbed “Lingonberry Western”). It was universally panned yet somehow attracted the attention of legendary actor Per Oscarsson who wanted Helge to produce a magnum opus he’d written called Sweden For The Swedish. The film was a colorful Pythonesque Middle Ages farce with a budget that, by today’s standards, would be roughly $10,000,000 (unheard of for a Swedish film at the time).
The late Per Oscarsson
The shoot involved thousands of extras, elaborate sets and costumes and Oscarsson’s overzealous ambitions mixed with Helge’s inexperience led to catastrophe. By his own admission Helge was “not very interested in that kind of stuff” when it came to bookkeeping and the expenses ran amok (Oscarsson shut down the shoot one night in order to have every character’s shoes repainted, including all the extras). To everyone’s surprise, the movie was finished but the end result was, critically and commercially, a flop. It remains to date the biggest in Swedish film history. Helge ran up so many impossible debts and broke so many contracts that he wound up serving several years in jail for it.
During his incarceration, Helge worked on improving his education and emerged newly determined to make better movies with more realistic budgets. He met up with Charles Aperia, the head of Stockholm-based film company VTC, who (like so many others) were eager to exploit the new and booming VHS market by producing attention-grabbing genre films. By sheer chance, the self-proclaimed “only ninja in Sweden” Bo F. Munthe was in Aperia’s office at the same time, trying to sell a draft of a ninja story he’d written. Munthe, Helge and Aperia hit it off and, between them, devised The Ninja Mission. Deciding to make it feel “fresh and current”, they hatched the Cold War plotline. Munthe got a few of his students in to play the ninjas and a number of Polish cast and crew members were hired because they would work at half the expense of Swedish ones.
Bo F. Munthe (left) – Sweden’s only actual ninja
Mats Helge worked mostly on the scenes involving action, without using a script. Occasionally he would hand pieces of paper to actors with random lines on. Other times, they’d just work it out while rolling. Meanwhile, a hired Polish AD would shoot loosely scripted dialogue scenes to the letter on a different set but, again, cast and crew members were often handed just a page at a time. This maybe explains part of why the dialogue seems so stilted and confusing. It’s unlikely even the person directing knew what these scenes were about, let alone the actors.
The film, upon release in Swedish, was taken off screens almost as quickly as it was put up. Audience members were walking out midway in droves and critics tore it to pieces. It looked like the end for The Ninja Mission and then, on the strength of the final scene’s brutality, Aperia sold the film to New Line for distribution in the US. Whether it was the timeliness of its vehement anti-Russian sentiment or just the power of the Ninja Boom at its apex, the film was a box office smash, instantly entering the top ten and even (somehow!?) receiving positive reviews in various US papers and magazines. Between VTC, New Line and even MGM (who – in the most surprising twist of all – acquired further international distribution rights for in the region of 50 other countries), the ripple effect grew and The Ninja Mission became one of the best-selling independent titles of the video era. It made somewhere in the region of $30,000,000 on a budget of $2,500,000 – and still ranks as one of the most successful Swedish films ever – but that’s where things get dark.
Helge immediately started capitalizing on the success, opening a studio in Lidköping and shooting a string of equally tawdry straight-to-video action hits (including three shot back-to-back with David Carradine, who believed he was only signing on for one). They had alluring titles like Russian Terminator, Fatal Secret and Animal Protector and were moderately successful, although nowhere to the extent of The Ninja Mission. Helge’s regular cast and crew members, however, grew confused by the fact that the movies did well and yet no one seemed to be actually receiving any of the proceeds. The Lidköping studio shut down rather suddenly…
The Becker/Lindeblad doc, being primarily the work of Helge fans, glosses over some detail but it is acknowledged that, by the end of the 1980s, the director owed at least SOME people SOME money. I imagine that following the trail of this and working out the full story would be challenging even at the time, let alone now, but something dodgy was definitely going on and, rather than serving jail time again, Helge vanished into the ether, much like an actual ninja. Becker and Lindeblad talked to a number of Helge’s friends and associates (none of whom had seen him in years) and did manage to get in touch with Helge over email but he refused to be interviewed for their film. He was last seen in public 16 years ago and since then has been spotted everywhere from Denmark to Canada, although rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated…
So who really knows what the story was with Mats Helge and his movies? Was he a mad genius with a vision and a drive that somehow enabled him to create a massively successful film from nothing? Or was he a talentless hack who, by fluke, rode the ninja wave to undeserved stardom through being in the right place at the right time? Was he a basically good guy who just didn’t have a head for numbers? Or a tax evading scam merchant who ripped off the majority of his collaborators and did a runner? The full story may never be revealed but The Ninja Mission remains, in its way, an important work for many reasons beyond just an abstract sense of nostalgia; it (bear with me) inspired a generation of young Swedish filmmakers to think they too could produce movies with the ambition of their US genre counterparts; it launched careers for a lot of its cast and crew (who went on to work on far better projects from Warsaw to Hollywood); it also, apparently, helped New Line to fund A Nightmare On Elm Street which, in turn, catapulted their indie studio into the mainstream. So from tiny ninja acorns and grow great ninja trees and all that…
In the midst of his prolific period, Helge even directed a sequel to The Ninja Mission called Eagle Island (written by Madeleine Bruzélius, a former kindergarten teacher who worked as costume designer on the original film) but I have to admit that, as ninja sequels go, it’s somewhere below Lady Ninja Kaede part two on my To Watch List… Keep the reading blog though. Maybe one day I’ll get there. It is ninjas all the way down indeed and these movies are a long, long way down…