Netflix’s new action movie, Polar, is based on Victor Santos’ webcomic and graphic novel of the same name. It tells the story of professional contract killer Duncan Visla (Mads Mikkelsen) a.k.a. The Black Kaiser, who is fourteen days away from retirement. Once retired, his pension will cost his former employer Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas) $8 million, unless Blut’s gang of assassins kill Duncan first, making them the default beneficiary.
Polar is the first of two frosty Mikkelsen movies this year, with Joe Penna’s superb tale of sub-zero survival, Arctic, set for release in February. Do not confuse the two however, as Arctic is a sublime high-tension nailbiter, and Polar is… most definitely not.
Polar gets off to a bad start with a heavily stylised contract-kill opening which wants, desperately, to be like Edgar Wright, but ends up somewhere in the McG ballpark. It’s a loud, nonsensically crass sequence with some seedy, objectifying camerawork just to make it that little bit worse.
Polar is directed by Jonas Åkerlund, which comes as something of a surprise considering his excellent work on Lords of Chaos, where he successfully balanced the tone of a very dark movie with a welcome light-heartedness. This is not so with Polar, and as the leering camera lens ogles bikini-clad assassin Sindy (Ruby O. Fee), the 21st century collectively facepalms at this male gaze masterclass. Once we discover a later subplot involving the survivor of an assault, it becomes massively tone deaf.
Things get better once Mikkelsen is involved (a phrase I’m sure we can all agree is a universal truth). He is as watchable as always and earns Polar an extra star by his presence alone. But you have to wonder what he’s doing in the film – every scene he’s in is great, but every scene that finds him absent is terrible. It’s like two different movies awkwardly shoehorned into the same runtime. Mikkelsen’s half is dark and stoic and very violent, while the other, as the contract killers try to track him down, is incoherent and jarringly comic. As Mr. Blut, Lucas is wildly over-the-top but it does suit his side of the movie, and Vanessa Hudgens is of note, very good as Duncan’s neighbour Camille.
The problem with Polar’s up-and-down tone is that the bad guys are not menacing. Instead, they are carnival grotesque and irritating. Like they were meant to be characters in The Greasy Strangler, or a Chuck Jones cartoon. You half expect them to break the 4th wall at any minute to confide they are “hunting wabbits”. And this identity crisis is why Polar never finds its feet. It doesn’t know whether to make you laugh or scream, so it tries, and fails, at both.
The larger-than-life approach is a bizarre choice when countering the mundane central plot of people being swindled out of their retirement. It’s an idea with a bit of a Grosse Point Blank feel to it, and one that could have been given decent mileage were a little more sophistication applied. Unfortunately, ‘sophistication’ is not in the Polar wheelhouse. A man being shot twice because he is too fat for the bullets to reach his vital organs, being a particularly puerile low point.
The second half of Polar is better as it commits to the darker direction, but it’s too late by that stage. The graphic violence sits like a bad meal, particularly following the cartoonish beginnings. It’s clear Åkerlund and co. had their sights set on something in the vein of John Wick meets Deadpool, but having botched the comedy and mis-calibrated the violence, we’ve ended up with Charlie’s Angels meets Hostel, and to clarify: that is not a compliment.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘Polar’ is available for streaming on Netflix. You can watch it right HERE.