Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Fei Ren, Ruby O. Fee, Matt Lucas, Robert Maillet, Anthony Grant, Josh Cruddas
Director: Jonas Åkerlund
Writer: Jayson Rothwell
Based on the graphic novel: Polar: Came from the Cold by Victor Santos
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Assassins needing to do one more job, whether on the brink of retirement or just retired. Simple enough idea and one we’ve seen before (John Wick, The American). Polar, a new Netflix movie by director Jonas Åkerlund, takes this concept and makes a slight alteration to the plot, creating an interesting twist. In the movie, Duncan Vizla, aka Black Kaiser (played by the amazing Mads Mikkelsen) is a few weeks from retirement. His employer has a lucrative pension plan that kicks in, as long as the assassin reaches the age of fifty. But the organization, run by the over-the-top cartoon-like Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas) is in financial trouble.
But, surprise, surprise, should anything happen to the assassins before retiring, their pension reverts back to the company. So, you can guess how this storyline plays out. In comes the younger assassins who are tasked to eliminate these retirement-age-approaching assassins, including yours truly, Duncan Vizla.
There are two concurrent storylines that take place in Polar, which eventually merge. The first follows the young assassins carrying out Mr. Blut’s kill order. However, most of their time is spent trying to locate Duncan. What follows are a series of exaggerated shakedowns and kills of anyone who’s been linked to him. Eventually, it’s by pure happenstance they find out he’s staying in a nice cabin in the forests of Montana. If the director had chosen to show just one of those kills, it really would have been enough and made the point. But instead, it goes on and on, becoming repetitive and frankly tedious to watch. Especially when one considers who those characters are supposed to be.
These so-called elite assassins act like a bunch of street thugs. When the movie begins, they’re introduced with their names on the screen, in a short freeze frame moment, using Gothic-like font. Why else than to announce that they will be important characters, no? Unfortunately, they don’t amount to much. To extract information from their targets, they simply beat them to a pulp. Not very elite to be honest. Given the type of movie this is, comparisons with Tarantino’s Kill Bill and its memorable assassins are likely to happen. Perhaps a quick study of its assassins could have provided a template on how to make them original, unique and more memorable.
On the other hand, there is Duncan’s story. Though an assassin, he exudes class and depth of emotion. He carries burdening guilt that stems from some past deed. It makes him quiet, pensive and almost philosophical in his mannerisms. However, underestimating him is an error the Damocles organization makes. Perhaps they would have been wise to read the story of the Sword of Damocles and the point Dionysus was trying to make having it hang over his throne tied by a hair. Maybe, just maybe, it would have changed their approach to Duncan, who, like John Wick, is a force to reckon with.
An assassin’s life must be a lonely one. Always on one job and then on to the next, never able to forge any meaningful relationships for fear of losing that person or even exposing oneself. Yet Duncan cares for Camille (though his reasons are kept secret) and interacts with her, albeit awkwardly at first. Their scenes are emotive and touching. It is a testament to Mads Mikkelsen that he is able to play both the cold, calculating and deadly assassin, yet show such a tender side as well. He’s quiet and even though he appears stoned-faced, there is more emotion and depth of character present than all of the other characters combined. He’s enigmatic and intriguing and even without saying a thing, you just know there’s a story being told. His brilliant performance alone is worth the almost two hour running time.
The story evolves slowly and holds its internal logic well enough. However, once the final confrontation arises, the story lets Duncan down. For a man whose entire career was exemplary and made him a fearsome assassin, it’s quickly abandoned in favor of clichéd action. The torture scene resulted from an uncharacteristically poorly thought out plan. It didn’t fit the narrative, other than perhaps explain why Duncan gets an eye patch. But the subsequent turn of events simply defies logic. I admit that given Polar is based on a comic to begin with, logic should be taken lightly. However, there are limits, especially when considering the evolution of the logic up until that point. It was simply out of place.
Polar is a great looking movie. There’s a nice balance between the rock video-like killing scenes (the assault at the cabin is fun) and the calm, cabin in Montana ones. The action is excellently choreographed and will leave any action fans excited and wanting more. There is some humor sprinkled throughout the movie. When Duncan gets a dog as a companion to retirement, you can’t help but laugh at the result, even if shocking.
As for the acting, it’s done relatively well. Mads is clearly the asset that makes this movie worth watching. Unfortunately, the other characters, though well acted, are simply one-dimensional, and you’ll be hard-pressed to remember them after the movie is finished. The exception is Katheryn Winnick who plays Vivian, the only one who really understands the danger Duncan poses. Finally, there are a few fun cameos. Johnny Knoxville plays Michael, one of the assassins on Mr. Blut’s kill list, and Richard Dreyfuss plays Porter, someone from Duncan’s past. Both added their sense of humor and sarcasm to their scene.
Polar isn’t John Wick, nor Kill Bill. It suffers from some predictability and repetitiveness issues at times. Moreso, most of the characters are one-dimensional, as though lifted from the pages of a comic page, but without any of the depth that makes them compelling. However, Mads Mikkelsen alone makes the movie worth watching. When on screen, the man commands attention with his veiled intensity. If you’re a fan a blunt action, this movie will definitely satisfy. Just don’t expect a serious dramatic in-depth character study. It’s silly and though you might want to reach for the remote and stop it at times, stick with it. The scenes with Mikkelsen and Hudgens will make it worth your while.