More shooty shooty bang bang. Netflix really wanted me to watch this movie, what with all the targeted ads and reminders, so I naturally assumed I was the target demographic for this adaptation of a Victor Santos’ comic book series. I suppose I am a fan of Mads Mikkelsen, and I have waxed lyrical about my high regard for the John Wick franchise, a series of films that Polar will inevitably draw comparisons to. But I couldn’t help but raise my eyes a bit at the choice of director, Jonas Akerlund, a man with an extensive and successful career with music videos and concert films, but little else besides. Bloody looking source material, and untried man at the helm, and a lead better known for his villain roles and selling Carlsberg than being an action star: What could possibly go wrong?
Duncan Visla (Mikkelsen), a highly skilled but traumatised assassin, is only two weeks from retirement, upon which his employer Mr Blut (Matt Lucas) will owe him eight million dollars. Determined to avoid this payout, Blut orders his best assassins to hunt Visla down, putting Duncan’s neighbour Camille (Vanessa Hudgens) in danger, and leading to a quest for bloody retribution from the “Black Kaiser”.
So, Polar isn’t really John Wick, bar a few obvious similarities in general narrative. It makes this clear in a remarkably ham-fisted manner early on in scenes involving a dog. No, it’s very obvious where the tone and tenor that Akerlund wants is finding its primary inspiration in Polar, and it’s Tim Miller’s Deadpool, not Chad Stahhelski’s much worthier assassin-based drama.
You can see it the snarky, self-reverential tone; in the outrageous villains; in the overly sexualised content, and in the copious amount of vulgar dialogue; in the torture pornish scenes; and in the sense that we are stuck watching a drama about an inherently unlikeable central character, where the writers try to hide that unlikability behind a mask of idiotic humour and shallow attempts at sappy sentimentality.
Let’s take those complaints one at a time. The self-reverence is in every edgelord pandering obnoxious shot, scene and script moment that screams “Look at how cool I am!”. It’s an issue of underserved self-confidence, that unfortunately speaks to a director used to having only four minutes per story that he wants to tell, all flash, style and sizzle, without any bang, substance or steak. You need more than colourful costuming and characters who go around acting like Loony Tunes on steroids: in the end, every other person in Polar, and every scene they inhabit, look and feel like something an angsty sex-deprived teenager would come up with.
The outrageous villains are headed by Lucas’ ridiculous Blut, who seems to me to be little more than a facsimile of the “Yellow Bastard” of Sin City, in terms of general manner and appearance. A film of this type needs a slightly better antagonist than this perverted clown, who carries staggeringly little threat through-out, and who never seems likely to get out of proceedings alive. It doesn’t help that Lucas himself is a poor actor who substitutes nuance for high-pitched screaming, and shouldn’t be anywhere near a property like this. The South Park-esque band of antagonists don’t look all that good next to Mikkelsen’s deadly serious grimdark protagonist, with the exception of Katheryn Winnick’s Vivian perhaps, but she doesn’t get near enough attention.
The overly sexualised content is the real takeaway from Deadpool infecting every scene and sequence. I mean, the opening scene revolves around a one-note Johnny Knoxville (remember him?) getting an erection. We have numerous, needless sex scenes, featuring lots of female-only nudity (Mikkelsen whips off his shirt, but that’s as far as it goes for the male reciprocation).; an assassin whose modus operandi is to offer oral sex in order to line up her victims for a snipers bullet; and the aforementioned perverted bad guy. Oh, and the film’s narrative structure revolves around a succession of Visla’s past and present lovers, with just about every character with a vagina giving him some variation of eye-fucking. It’s repetitive, it’s tired, it’s lazy, and it makes the film look like something for 13 year olds. The vulgar dialogue isn’t quite as garish, but is noticeable after a time as well: when you feel the need to have your character curse in every other sentence to get across the edgy anti-authority tone, it’s clear you aren’t making something that deserves great consideration.
The torture porn comes across in a few scenes, but especially in a literal extended torture scene, and in the large amount of cartoonish violence that serves little purpose other than to make the viewer, squirm, wince or maybe shudder with pleasure if you are so inclined. Violence should always serve a purpose of plot or characterisation; when you have multiple scenes of mostly nameless mooks being beaten to death without anything in the way of plot progression, you’re going down the wrong path, both in terms of the unpleasant depiction of violence as an end in itself, and as a substitution for actual characterisation. Less, in this case, is certainly more. Matching sex and gore in the same scene in this matter points to a director in need of growing up.
The last point is, if you’ll pardon the pun, the real killer. John Wick seemed like a fundamentally decent person who got sucked into a life he didn’t really like and just wanted to be left alone with his grief and his dog. We could root for him as a guy who wanted to punish the bastards who killed that dog, and then disappear. Wade Wilson wanted to have lots of increasingly kinky sex with his girlfriend and fell into his superhero role mostly because of a cancer diagnosis. While I disliked the movie, Wilson still erred towards moral virtue more than evil. Visla, well, Visla has regrets about his past life, and just wants to retire, but you never get that sense that he is a person worth rooting for.
He’s overly-violent, manipulative of those in need around him and is sexually aggressive; his sudden desire to protect the neighbour he barely knows simply does not ring true, and a late-in-the-game attempt to draw a firmer connection between the two is flat and uninspired. About the only thing that makes the Black Kaiser a more likeable character than the army of assassins out to off him is that he doesn’t talk as much and isn’t quite as ostentatious. When you have a main character who appears so unlikeable and so irredeemable, your film loses its ability to engage any audience member with half a brain.
The film is not a total loss of course. There are elements that work, such as when it leans into the cartoonish elements, such as in a scene where Visla teaches a class of very young kids the best ways to sever arteries. Mikkelsen puts in his standard low-volume performance, and from the aura he gives off I do buy him as a dangerous assassins type, he just would have been a better fit as a villain and one can only appreciate his willingness to showcase his body to the amount that he does. The rest of the cast, bar Lucas, have fun in their roles, and Vanessa Hudgens does the best she can with the largely bit part of Camille, while Richard Dreyfuss’s one scene cameo is mildly entertaining if nothing else. The action of the film is shot well, most notably an extended escape sequence relatively late on that borrows heavily from the John Wick style, and other moments that were, unfortunately, liberally spoiled in trailers. The rest of it isn’t shot in any kind of notable way; Akerlund has an eye for flashy colours and contrasts, but none of it really sticks in the mind.
Very regrettably, Polar leaves the audience dangling on the prospect of what seems to be a much more interesting premise given the elements at play that I don’t even mind spoiling all that much: the idea of a survivor of a botched assassination job teaming up with the regretful assassin to track down the person responsible for assigning the hit in the first place. What a warped, yet enticing odd couple idea that is, yet Polar decides that is just the endgame stinger, making its running time little more than prologue. Perhaps we might get that story in time, and if they handed it off to a different director I might actually check it out. It’s just a shame that such potential ingenuity is the full stop to a poorly constructed sentence.
One suspects that Akerlund is a fan of Suicide Squad, another film that tried to cross nominally grim subject manner with a vibrant colour palette (at times) and that failed in many important ways. Polar takes the bad parts and then invents some new ones: the end result is a rather pathetic, dim-witted production, that Netflix may have wanted in order to appeal to a certain underage demographic, but that I would advise any studio should run a mile from in this day and age. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).