Principal Cast : Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Kathryn Winnick, Matt Lucas, Josh Cruddas, Ruby O Fee, Anthony Grant, Rbert Maillet, Fei Ren, Inga Cadranel, Pedro Miguel Arce, Johnny Knoxville, Richard Dreyfuss, Ayisha Issa, Lovina Yavari.
Synopsis: The world’s top assassin, Duncan Vizla, is settling into retirement when his former employer marks him as a liability to the firm. Against his will, he finds himself back in the game going head to head with an army of younger killers.
It makes no difference that Polar is as cliched and trope-laden as it is, because one of the golden rules of modern cinema is that simply including Mads Mikkelsen you automatically make your movie cooler. Polar, as you’d expect from the title, is extremely cool. It helps that the majority of the film occurs in the Montana mountains, all snowy and frozen over. The generic “retired assassin” routine gets rolled out yet again in this ballsy, violent, comic-book movie with gratuity to spare. It’s sexy, horrifying, vulgar and brutal, the perfect blend of action-centric machismo and off-the-wall bizarre to either enthral or repulse in equal measure.
Legendary assassin Duncan Vizla (Mikkelsen) is only two weeks from retiring, his organisation known as Damocles run by the evil Mr Blut (Matt Lucas) and his associate Vivian (Kathryn Winnick). If Duncan survives to retirement, Damocles is contracted to pay him a significant lot of money – Mr Blut, however, knows that should Duncan die before the end date, the money returns to the company. So, in true perverse fashion, Blut send out a squad of goons to “retire” Duncan before he can collect. Duncan, who is in hiding in a Montana cabin near a timid young woman (Vanessa Hudgens), is eventually cornered by the Damocles hit squad: forced to retaliate, Duncan fixes his business as only a solid gold killer truly can.
Polar borrows liberally from a good half-dozen other subgenre films. Besson’s Leon, Joe Carnaghan’s Smokin’ Aces, Keanu Reeves’ John Wick, a smidgen of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, even a hint of Antoine Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers: Polar echoes with familiarity even as it strives to develop its own identity. Mikkelsen, as Duncan, personifies the stoic, professionally competent killer-with-a-heart, a man trying to escape his past but dragged firmly back into the mire by those who seek his demise. It’s a role lacking width, the character stuck within a set degree of boundaries as to what kind of performance the actor could give, and to his credit Mikkelsen delivers a rousing, crowd-pleasing sense of sheer brutality to get the job done, but asking a thinly developed story and inherently unlikable characters to bring a sense of empathy is fruitless indeed.
Jayson Rothwell’s soundbite-driven screenplay hits all the genre markers, including double-crosses, torture, massive gunplay, wanton violence and last-gasp plot twists. The dialogue is entirely designed to be cool rather than expository, the plot lacking a sense of humanity (despite the cast’s best efforts) and the style-over-substance cinematography and editing trying to amp up the energy of the film. Polar simmers just off the boil most of the time, occasionally bogged down in the tortured figure Vanessa Hudgens’ character has involving herself in Duncan’s life, and yet with Mikkelsen nearby there’s still a touch of heart to it all. If you squint. The film isn’t so much carried by its cast as it is weighed down by them, all bar Mikkelsen actually terrible in the requisite supporting roles.
Key to the sense of indulgence in Polar’s largesse is the inclusion of Matt Lucas as Duncan’s former employer turned nemesis, Mr Blut. Sporting a garish blonde wig and preposterous costuming, Lucas seems to be acting as if he’s in a more violent Austin Powers flick, rather than this salacious affair. His line delivery is cement-like, his performance style grating, and his overall character an obnoxious bore. The satisfaction of his eventual (inevitable) demise is ruined by the fact that Lucas is unable to give any import or heft to what should have been a far more frightening Joker-esque part. Hudgens, meanwhile, tries and fails to adequately play the Natalie Portman in Leon role, a young woman/child seeking retribution against the man who destroyed her life, despite some relatively decent scenes to build up her backstory. Sadly, Hudgens’ role is bludgeoned into submission by vanishing almost entirely for a good chunk of the movie.
Supporting roles to the likes of Katheryn Winnick as the vindictive Vivian, Ruby O Fee as the sexy Sindy, and Fei Ren as the sadistic Hilde, provide plenty of cool and clunky moments to savour, while brief cameos by Johnny Knoxville (as another “retired” Damocles assassin in the film’s vulgar opening sequence) and Richard Dreyfuss (in what would have to be a single afternoons filming, his scene is so quick) offer glimpses of a wider world we’re never to explore. There’s nudity, swearing, ultra-violence similar to John Wick’s famous nightclub sequence, a load of portentous sermonising and an altogether blissful sense of dark humour, but Polar spends too long trying to be cool rather than actually being cool it hurts the film overall.
The film isn’t without a distinct visual style, and it’s here that Polar really kicks into gear. The direction by long-time music video helmer Jonas Akerlund (Madonna’s “Ray of Light”, Roxette’s “Run To You”, Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” and Taylor Swift’s “New Romantics” are all glimpses into his filmography, among an incredibly extensive list) is garish and heady, the camera moving almost constantly and the editing as frantic as Duncan’s enthusiastic gunplay. The violence hits that sweet spot where it’s often overt but sometimes a lot of what we don’t see is for the best, including numerous headshots, breaking of limbs, cataclysmic massacres and a nicely staged (if highly illogical) cabin-in-the-woods shootout that elevates Mikkelsen’s character to near mythic status. Sadly, as is the wont for films of this kind, the violence does lean heavily into masochism and consequently finds itself slowly wearing out its impact, and although Akerlund does his best to slowly ratchet up the jaw-dropping moments by the film’s climax, things feel too desensitised to really make up for it.
Polar is an excessive exercise in showmanship, violent revenge and glorious gratuity. It’s a film without redemptive quality, really, as honest a B-movie blockbuster as you’ll find and lacking a shred of regret over its showy, comic-book-roots-inspired shock and awe. Mikkelsen makes a good
John Wick Duncan Vizla and Jonas Akerland’s kinetic direction certainly brings a sense of playful fun with the violent deaths and torture, but I’d be lacking diligence in criticism if I suggested this was actually a good movie. Frankly, it’s a terrible movie, but what it is is a hell of a lot of fun. If you make it through the Johnny Knoxville opening sequence without turning it off, you’re good to go. Trashy subgenre film-making like this will never find its way into Hollywood’s awards circuit but I’ll be damned if I don’t prefer this kind of thing over a lot of the pretentious dramatic works out there today.