The source material for the Netflix-produced Polar is a noir-inspired web-comic written and illustrated by Victor Santos, which takes a minimalistic approach to the international hitman subgenre. It features a stylized, monochromatic aesthetic and no speech bubbles, making it intrinsically cinematic and emotive, but Jonas Åkerlund’s film adaptation takes a decidedly more smash-mouth approach. In the film you’ll see lots of color, hear lots of dialogue, and experience very little in the way of nuance.
Instead Polar seems to take great inspiration from John Wick and the frenzied, hyper-violent work of Neveldine/Taylor in films like Crank (movies I quite enjoy) but fails to reconcile the in-your-face style it employs with the moody sensibilities of the core story, resulting in a movie that feels tonally imbalanced and confused, though it does manage to entertain and thrill from time to time.
The film’s anchor and saving grace is the magnificent, mustachioed Mads Mikkelsen, who plays grizzled contract killer Duncan Vizla, AKA the “Black Kaiser.” Duncan is almost 50 and fast approaching retirement, but little does he know that his maniacal, grotesquely pasty, hand-lotion abusing boss, Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas, perfectly hate-able but too often over-the-top), plots to send a team of younger assassins to off him so that his handsome penchant gets conveniently funneled back to the bankroll of his evil organization, the cheekily named “Damocles.”
In preparation for his retirement, Duncan resigns himself to a quiet cabin in the snow-blanketed woods of Montana, where he makes futile attempts to lead a normal life (he buys a dog and accidentally shoots it dead when startled awake by a nightmare), and takes a liking to a similarly lonely and disturbed neighbor, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens). All the while, Blut’s hotshot assassins are hot on his trail, leaving a trail of bloody, bullet-ridden bodies in their wake as they zero in on his location.
There’s an attempt here to focus on the emotional and psychological connection between Duncan and Camille that just doesn’t pan out because the movie’s general air of stupidity, embodied primarily by the cartoonish villains, undermines the sincerity of the more sensitive scenes. Mikkelsen is captivating though, which is no surprise. He’s dry and formidable and badass, and his physical performance, both in quiet moments and in action-driven scenes, is superb. He’s one of those gifted actors who can literally sit still and stare off into space, and if you point the camera at him, he’ll somehow tell a story without moving a muscle. It’s hard to tell whether he’s got a supernatural ability to emote from within, he simply embodies a great onscreen look, or a combination of both, but what’s clear is that he’s one of the most fascinating, enigmatic actors working today. But again, the cinematic scaffolding around him is so rickety that it’s hard to ever really sink in and fully enjoy his handiwork before his spell is broken by some inane slapstick comedy bit.
Following Duncan’s pursuers as they savagely interrogate and execute their quivering victims is almost insufferable to watch, not because these encounters are too violent, but because they’re woefully unfunny and dull. One moment sees them blow a bunch of young potheads’ brains out one by one, with one of the kids trying to escape by throwing himself through a window (he bounces off of the glass and promptly catches a bullet in the skull for his troubles).
The young guns are introduced using that tired technique from the late ‘90s to early 2000s where the character’s name is scrawled in obnoxious text over a freeze frame of them in the middle of some action that’s supposed to reflect the essence of their personality but is almost always inexplicably silly. But what’s so annoying about this clichéd device is that it’s designed to signal that the character is going to be important to the story, which absolutely is not the case when it comes to this band of ballistic douchebags.
Åkerlund, a seasoned music video director, has a punchy, bludgeoning visual style that’s often stimulating and exciting in the moment but fails to produce cinematic substance that will stick with you after the end credits. There are moments—particularly scenes between Mikkelsen and Hudgens in the snow—that look and feel pretty evocative, actually, but the film’s color palette as a whole is muddy, with the scenes featuring Mr. Blut snorting coke and abusing women in his gaudy mansion looking oversaturated, blown out, and noxious, which genuinely made my eyes hurt.
There are some terrific action moments to speak of, like a gun-fu showdown in a choked hallway that echoes John Wick and Old Boy but is actually shot and choreographed well enough that the scene doesn’t crumble under the comparison. But other moments—like an unnecessarily long torture scene and the cliché standoff between Duncan and the assassins—feel uninspired. They are also indicative that this movie misunderstands the true appeal of rebellious, raw midnight movies.
I can imagine those with a proclivity for blood-soaked romps featuring lots of cool-looking guns and gross-out gore may be entertained on some level by Polar. But the pacing, cinematography, dialogue, and performances (excluding Mikkelsen, Hudgens, and Katheryn Winnick, who plays the only interesting evil assassin of the bunch) are so distractingly problematic that the movie’s myriad flaws were hard for me to forgive or ignore.