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Operation Napoleon

The Icelandic/German conspiracy thriller “Operation Napoleon” would be as comforting as its airport thriller plot if it weren’t also baggy, joyless, and spiritually depleting. Based on a novel by best-selling author Arnaldur Indridason (Jar CityReykjavik Nights), “Operation Napoleon” has everything that your dad probably loves about late-period Clive Cussler and mid-period Robert Ludlum yarns, including evil CIA agents, dramatically inert monologues about hidden treasure, and a crack team of misfits who are being stalked by a ballcap-wearing professional assassin. The plot congeals soon after a group of Icelandic explorers discovers a German WWII spy plane. They’re then attacked by a mysterious group of Americans led by a smiling murderer with a pencil. This scenario doesn’t develop further, but the Americans do chase around the sister of the Icelandic team’s leader. Two hours later, a cliffhanger ending stops “Operation Napoleon” before the movie starts.

To be fair, the makers of this pulpy, if too dry, action-adventure seem to know what they’re doing, or at least where to stick jokes, character development, and perfunctory bloodletting. They also seem to have very literally translated a novel to a visual medium without consideration for how listless, flat, and charmless this globe-trotting chase movie might now look. Case in point: when we first meet Kristin (Vivian Olafsdottir), she’s meticulously dressing down Runolfur (Hjortur Johann Jonsson), a lazy mansplaining colleague, using Powerpoint-style slides that reveal exactly how Runolfur’s tried to sell “old wine in new bottles,” according to Kristin.

We also see Kristin sharing a pseudo-playful conversation with her explorer brother Elias (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson) right before he and his team are approached by smiling Julie Ratoff (Adesuwa Oni) and her armed goons. Elias hastily texts Kristin some video footage of the Nazi plane that he and his hapless companions have stumbled upon. Kristin must soon also deal with Julie, who kills one of Elias’ friends with a pencil and then, in a later scene, tortures someone else with a pencil.

Elias and Kristin’s pre-Julie conversation checks off some dramatic boxes, but in such basic ways that you can’t help but wish that the screenwriters had either rewritten or tried a new approach to this establishing scene. They kid around with each other and talk about their stillborn love lives as if they were distractedly working their way through a checklist of social prompts. Then Julie shows up, and her smile is as unconvincing as Oni’s performance. She asks for Elias and his team’s contact information, and the tension is so hilariously slack that the by-the-numbers bloodletting that follows seems even more underwhelming.

Julie works for the icy CIA agent William Carr (Iain Glen), whom we know is a bad man since, in his first scene, he plays with his grandchildren. William also employs Simon (Wotan Wilke Mohring), a sneaky but laughably conspicuous killer who follows Kristin around Iceland but somehow fails to kill her, and Steve (Jack Fox), her well-read will-they/won’t-they companion. Simon kills and/or roughs up some bystanders, but most of his character-defining aggression, like Julie’s pencil trick, happens off-screen.

Meanwhile, Kristin and Steve learn more about the plane Elias and his friends stumbled upon. Eventually, gentle giant Einar (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) joins Steve and Kristin and shares crucial information about Operation Napoleon. There are no flashbacks to illustrate Einar’s speech, but there’s some stock footage of the Nazis in a later scene.

The primary audience for “Operation Napoleon” seems to be people who either already know and love Indridason’s novel or can’t resist this sort of hardtack potboiler. Most scenes are paced without much grace or rhythm, many visual compositions appear functional and grey, and the cast often looks like they were given one take and then rushed to the next camera set-up. Dialogue doesn’t build so much as it indicates action that may or may not be on-screen. And in many scenes, Kristin and the gang retrace their steps, presumably to ingratiate themselves to viewers trying to follow their deductive logic and pseudo-historical mythology more than whatever they’re looking at. 

If there must be a sequel, as an anticlimactic finale suggests, perhaps its creators will slow down, maybe take a few extra drafts to polish their jokes, or, better yet, a few extra rehearsals to determine what only reads well on paper. Maybe they could give Julie better material to work with than a yellow pencil and a tedious post-Tarantino speech about dog-like foxes. Or maybe Einar could tell a joke at his expense—he’s such a slob!—that took more time to write than recite. Maybe Kristin and Steve can kiss or look at something interesting while they exposit about Operation Napoleon, like some Icelandic glaciers. Indridason could also come on camera and read directly from his book. Who knows, maybe it’ll make time move faster.

On Demand now.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

Operation Napoleon movie poster

Operation Napoleon (2023)

Rated NR

112 minutes

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