POLAR (a new Netflix original, exactly like ROMA) is one of these movies about a legendary hitman trying to retire. And it’s the type that takes place in a very exaggerated world where murder-for-hire is a thriving business populated with many quirky and talented individuals possessing a flair for fashion and creative violence. It seems like if it’s not inspired by the JOHN WICK saga it’s at least given aid and comfort by it, but technically it’s based on a comic book that started in 2012. Polar was a web comic, improvised by writer/artist Victor Santos in black, white and orange, and posted one page at a time, with no dialogue until it was later collected into a graphic novel by Dark Horse Comics. The movie is far from silent or monochrome and it’s more structured than that sounds like it would be, but when you hear it’s based on a comic book it makes plenty of sense.

Mads Mikkelsen (VALHALLA RISING) plays Duncan “The Black Kaiser” Vizla, prolific super-elite-killer forced to retire by his company, Damocles, because he’s turning 50. He starts a humble snowy cabin life in small town Northern-Exposure-lookin Triple Oak, Montana, smoking and drinking in the dark by the fireplace and looking across the lake to his eternally sad loner neighbor Camille (Vanessa Hudgens, SUCKER PUNCH). He sees her having trouble chopping fire wood before leaving home and then when she comes back she – and we – are surprised to see all her logs have been chopped and neatly piled. That’s Duncan for you.

(By the way, I assume the title was just because the comic took place in a snowy setting and he didn’t really know where it was going at first. They probly shoulda come up with something better for the movie.)

Meanwhile the boss, Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas, ALICE IN WONDERLAND), whose aesthetic is “Paul Williams with a sword and yellow nail polish,” would rather Duncan not be able to collect his $8,207,523.04 pension check. Blut first tries having the handler Vivian (Katheryn Winnick, HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD) set Duncan up, but let’s just say their guy ends up crucified in the hallway of a fancy hotel in Belarus. So Blut sends his “A-Team” of younger killers to all Duncan’s addresses, where they keep finding the wrong people and terrorizing and killing them anyway. There’s kind of a SUICIDE SQUADdy type of bratty dark humor to their mischief , so, for example, they machine gun a large innocent man in his living room while “Islands in the Stream” plays. Best physical gag: the terrified stoner who tries to escape by jumping through a window, but just bounces off of it. They kill him and leave the room and then the window shatters.

The style and tone of the opening scene had me a little concerned. An aging mafioso-lookin dude (Johnny Knoxville, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES) is assassinated while getting a blowjob at a mansion in Middle of Nowhere, Chile. Seems like the instigator of the sex act (Ruby O. Fee, lookin like Bunny Lebowski) could’ve done the deed, but instead she’s distracting him for four different killers, and there are freeze frames as their names slam on screen (which should be illegal at this point) with mismatched fonts. There are split screens and wipes always accompanied by slamming and clicking sound effects, and these characters all dress in different Please Pay Attention To Me ways ranging from neon track suits and gold chains to facepaint with only one eyebrow. Honestly I enjoyed how they set the scene to Earth Wind and Fire’s “September,” and eventually the lyrics are on screen with a bouncing ball as the characters sing along, but all this and the spastic editing bring to mind THE LOSERS x SMOKIN’ ACES with a jigger of TANK GIRL. It’s never straight up terrible, but often skates the very edge of trying too hard.

Still, credit is due to the circus troupe of cinematographer Par M. Ekberg, production designer Emma Fairley and costume designers Lea Carlson (GINGER SNAPS) and Susie Coulthard, most of whom are regular collaborators of the director, Jonas Akerlund. He did the movies SPUN, HORSEMEN, SMALL APARTMENTS and LORDS OF CHAOS, but he’s best known for music videos, including Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi,” Beyonce’s “Hold Up,” and a whole bunch of Roxette. After the opening he calms down a little, and most of the time he’s got a nice musical rhythm set to a driving sample score by that DJ called Deadmau5. I think the guy could have a cooler mask, to be honest, but I like the music he made here.

Though Duncan participates in the same cartoonish violence as his obnoxious foes (in fact, arguably more extreme than them), he seems to exist in a separate movie. The one he’s in is grey and cold and contemplative. While the bad guys are hanging out, somebody dancing, somebody getting high, playing music, breaking things, causing a ruckus, Duncan isolates himself, or makes timid attempts at connecting with his clearly damaged neighbor. He’s quiet and reserved, dresses well but not flashily and without color. He’s a really funny character without being witty – lots of odd, awkward conversations. He tells a woman trying to sell a dog that “I like dogs with human names, like Rusty.” Sometimes he does strange things like gently tell the killer Hilde (Fei Ren, SUPERGRID) “Try not to be scared” before he shoots her, or casually hand a bloody ax he just used to a secretary as he leaves. He’s a weirdo. But he’s our weirdo.

And when he’s part of a joke (like taking up the doctor’s offer of a slice of home made pie moments after a prostate exam) he’s so deadpan about it it never makes him seem silly. It’s mostly understated humor, like he’s always saying he’s not gonna do something (smoke, buy a dog, teach kids, kill somebody) and then he’s doing it in the next scene. But the part where he teaches a class room of young kids about knives is dampened when their questions are punctuated with comical cutaways to his assassinations – a rare case of making his scenes as hyperactive as the young peoples’.

Also, if anyone is interested, he shows his ass a bunch of times, including for doin it and for sneaking up on a guy naked in the snow. It’s an unabashedly bawdy movie with acrobatic sex, lots of blood, some nasty torture, most of it done to our hero but occasionally done by him, and generally with the attitude that this is fun or outrageous, not that it’s gonna disturb you or bum you out.

Hudgens is very good as Camille, always tired, never smiling, could also be described as frumpy. Along with some of the bit characters in the town she’s our representative of the real world of non-assassins. In many movies that could change, he could teach her to do flips and shoot people, but even just taking her out to the woods to shoot bottles is a disaster. Nope, she sits alone at night doing nothing, cries in the bath tub, seems to never forget the trauma she’s living with, just dredges through life one day at a time with no sense of joy or hope, and this is all treated solemnly. I like the way these two contrast with the Skittles-colored rogues gallery – they are better people because they take death and violence more seriously.

If you watch this, I recommend not looking at the cast list beforehand. There’s a great scene where Duncan goes to meet an Old Friend named Porter, who we first see doing sad karaoke in a mostly empty bar. It’s not Porter from PAYBACK, but it’s an actor who was a marquee name long ago and co-starred in at least one movie on most of our “favorite movies ever” lists, and I guess he’s been working all along but I haven’t seen him in anything in almost ten years so I had kind of a “holy shit!” reaction to his one nice, weird little scene.

Although I think it’s fair to call this an action movie, it’s much more about the story than any kind of setpieces, and there aren’t many long sequences of battle. Still, Mikkelsen is good with the poses and it does build to some pretty cool shit (mostly with guns). Fight and stunt coordinator/second unit director Jean Frenette has credits going back to the Jalal Merhi movie FEARLESS TIGER, the Gary Daniels movie HAWK’S VENGEANCE, and the sword fights in HIGHLANDER: THE FINAL DIMENSION. More recently he’s done IMMORTALS, POMPEII, BON COP BAD COP 2 and the Jack Ryan show (not to be confused with The Jack Ryan Show).

Though I like those scenes, it’s impressive that the real climax of the movie is not a killing, but an emotional conversation. I really like the place it ends up – sad and uncomfortable but also kind of cool and leaving me wondering what happens next as the Dangermau5 slow guitar riffs groove and the camera pulls out into the snowy mountain valley. It’s either the perfect place to end it or the perfect place to continue it from. I guess we’ll know eventually.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 29th, 2019 at 11:36 am and is filed under Action, Comic strips/Super heroes, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Polar”

  1. Like most of us who haven’t been living under a rock since CASINO ROYALE, I’m a huge Mads Mikkelsen fan, but the trailer for this did worry me that the hyperactive style would be a total turn-off. Now that POLAR has your stamp of approval, it’s on the must-watch list.

    It doesn’t seem to me like you’re very much into Thomas Harris unless it’s directed by Michael Mann, but one day you really must check out Mikkelsen’s performance as Hannibal Lecter.

  2. Not a single person I follow on letterboxd.com had anything good to say about this one. I’m probably going to skip it because I have other movies to watch. Like Double Tap starring Stephen Rea, Heather Locklear, Peter Green, Mykelti Williamson and Terrence Howard with a score by Moby. It’s from 1997.

  3. Yeah I kept liking this more and more as it went on. For a long time, it threatens to tip over into total obnoxiousness, but Mikkelson and Vanessa Hudgens effectively kept it pretty grounded. I even eventually grew kind of fond of the group of younger killers, in the sort of way you might be temporarily fond of the teens in a late-period Friday the 13th movie. I also have a weird affection for Johnny Knoxville, so it was kinda nice to see him pop up for a little bit, and I said “what the fuck?” out loud when [ACTOR REDACTED] appeared for that one scene. Ultimately, though, I think my primary takeaway will be how supremely badass Mikkelson looked with that mustache and eyepatch at the end.

  4. I think Mikkelson would be a shoe in if they ever made a Solid Snake movie. Also, I liked this too.

  5. Mads Mikkelsen made this 100% worth watching, he definitely deserves to start getting some of the 800 scripts that Liam Neeson probably gets a week.

    The extended fight scene in the hallway was really well done, I can’t even imagine how long that took to shoot and edit.

  6. The Undefeated Gaul

    January 29th, 2019 at 12:41 pm

    Yeah, this was a fun, easy watch. Mads carries this all the way and I liked the bursts of actions throughout. The movie does try way too hard to be funny and mostly doesn’t succeed, but I did laugh pretty hard during the scene where Mads is teaching the kids. Also, don’t know if it was in the comic, but the thing with the dog does seem like a pretty brilliant nod to John Wick. I’d watch a sequel if they make it for sure.

  7. Yeah, I almost mentioned the dog but didn’t want to give away the punchline. I took that as a JOHN WICK joke too. I also like that after he got a fish he was reading a book about taking care of fish.

  8. I have a feeling this is the kind of movie I’ll forget entirely in three weeks, but it was fun. I kind of wish they’d separated the two tones into two different movies, though. I’d have happily watched Mads go through a more straightforward revenge caper, while I’d have also happily watched the trashy late 90s/early 2000s wacky hitmen throwback movie that the villains were starring, preferably with Johnny Knoxville in the lead as a legendary hitman who only survived this long through sheer dumb luck, not the skill and expertise attributed to him by his competitors. But I’m okay with the combo platter we got served.

    That big cameo surprised the shit out of me. How is it that REDACTED both hasn’t changed in 30 years and also metamorphosed into Wilford Brimley? You’d think those things would be incompatible.

    I’m surprised no one brought up the discreet middle finger to JOHN WICK. You think Wick is badass because he gets revenge over a murdered dog? Well, this guy is so badass HE MURDERS HIS OWN DOG. Kind of childish but I laughed.

  9. Why would I wanna watch a movie where the main character kills their dog?

  10. I really liked the first hour, even thought there was a harsh tonal change between the Smokin Ace’s like shanigans with the young assassins, and Mads MIkkelsen and Vanessa Hudgens The American like story (I’m refering to the George Clooney hitman film), but while the last 50 minute has the two best action set pieces, I’m not sure I liked the tone of this half. You are waiting for some bad ass action, and he gets captured to early. When the torturer scene happened I start to skip after the first day, when I saw that it will go on for 5 minutes. I don’t have patients for that long scene (is the type of scene that make Uk rated 15 film get an 18 rating for perversive and/or sadistic violence). The last 5 minute also had a really harsh tonal change, and while it kinda fit with some of the story, it didn’t feel right, specially with Hudgens’s character being drugged up and abused for so long.

    Also when is Netflix going to give Scott Adkins a John Wick type of film where can wear a nice suit and go around a headshot 120 people. I need that in my life, so give someone $20 million to make that, most of Adkins action film cost only a cool million, imagine what he and someone like Isaac Florentine could do with $20 mill?

    I also watched The Debt Collector, which was okay, I consider a mediocre film like Eliminators to be better. Also watched season 2 of the Punisher before I got to watch Polar, which was occasionally good (specially the first 3 episode), and it had some really good action set piece. So a pretty good week of Netflix viewing. I think I’m going to watch Close now.

  11. Thank you, Vern! I was unfamiliar with this one and loved it to bits. Hyper violent, sexy, funny, superbly choreographed. Understated where required. And the slow and delightful recognition of Porter and then the effective ending that I did not see coming.

    And Mads Mikkelsen is terrific. As usual. A believable badass here. He is simply one of the best actors working.

    Silly, stylized, violent, wonderful fun. I love this film.

    Thanks, bud.

  12. I liked this one a lot more than I thought I would after seeing the trailer. I think my favorite part was (spoiler) the guards just nope’ing the fuck out at the end. I don’t recall seeing that before, and that was a great “How Badass Is He” moment.

  13. On the subject of webcomics generally, I’ve found for those of us who can’t afford to finance our own movies (I’m guessing most of us), helping make webcomics is an acceptible substitute.

  14. Agh hell, acceptable. I hate typing things out on a phone …

  15. This is on my to-watch list, hopefully for this weekend. Love Mads in almost everything I have seen him in.

    But I just want to second Patrick Newman’s claim- Mads playing Hannibal was fantastic. That TV show was sheer brilliance, and I still cannot believe something so bloody and weird was aired on network television for three seasons.
    But to step into playing an absolutely iconic character like Lecter, and then do a completely new spin on it while still knocking it out of the park, that is tough. And Mads did it.

  16. Did Hannibal resolve or was it canceled and left hanging?

  17. It was cancelled but it was also resolved. There’s a post-credits scene in the final episode that hints at how the show might have proceeded if it was renewed, but it’s vague and open to interpretation and doesn’t negate the resolution.

  18. My netflix queue with original content is steadily building over the past few months. I’d guess that’s a good development for them in the streaming wars.Ironically, they might end up the proverbial little guys in the streaming wars within a few years.

  19. In French the word “polar” is slang for crime story or cop thriller or whodunit. Novels or films.

    This film isn’t really any of those things, but I guess the comic book author thought the word was cool.

  20. Oh wow, that’s interesting, Anne. Is this just a guess or have you seen that explained as the intention of the title? I know the artist/author is Spanish, but he might be familiar with the term.

  21. About Mr. Redacted Actor: about 9 years ago, he had a part in a certain action movie and there was something about his nose that made me think he had recently had some dermatology work done for some sort of carcinoma. Still not certain if that was makeup or the actual thing.

    Turns out he’s actually “broke”, or was about three years ago according to an interview I’ve seen. He’s been taking any and every part he can stomach for the money. He blames it on youthful spending and not having a good financial manager until he was in his late forties.

  22. Vern – I haven’t seen that anywhere as an explanation, but it’s the one that makes most sense to me. I know there’s snow in the film, but it doesn’t seem to be POLAR VORTEX levels of cold. And I can’t remember anyone wearing a polar fleece. So – I’m thinking crime story, yeah.

  23. Mads must have a weird eye thing in all of his contracts, like Nicholas Cage and his hairpieces.

  24. Apparently the movie suddenly got a small uptick of popularity in Germany, because it turned out the hitwoman who gives the BJ in the beginning is a German actress and started dating one of our most famous actors last week.

    Germany is weird.

  25. Just saw this over the holiday break. It’s all right – I think I liked it a little less that others here, but I enjoyed it. Mikkelsen is great as usual.

    Vern – About the title… in a couple of scenes with the accountant and where Mikkelsen goes over his papers, a few of them are monogrammed with the gothic P (as seen in the title card for the movie and the logo in its netflix page).
    There’s also something weird with the company – I’d need to watch it again, but I think the deal might be that the boss is buying Damocles and rebranding? And that’s why he needs to do the whole scheme, with that boardroom-style scene with the investors? If that’s the case Polar could be the name of the old company, which explains why the logo is on Duncan’s old paperwork. Then again, there’s that talk the boss gives about his father being into swords… Gah, I think I’m giving it more thought than the scriptwriters did.

    You’ve got to wonder what the current employees think about killing off the older employees… I mean, that’s not a great benefits package, sex and a bullet to the head at fifty. Then again, the A-team did seem like the type of dipshits that wouldn’t think about that sort of thing.

    I watched this and Kate almost back-to-back, and I have to say I preferred Kate; it’s just slicker and more satisfying, even if it’s because it takes less risks. Netflix called Kate “John Wick meets Crank”, and this one “John Wick meets The Professional”. So now I’m waiting for “Kate meets Polar” – not sure what it will be, but there will be lots of assassins and seas of CGI blood.
    Damn I miss squibs.

  26. Mikkelsen has done much better movies, esp. his two FANTASTIC dramas with director Thomas Vinterberg. Don’t waste your time with mediocre stuff like POLAR. RIDERS OF JUSTIC is MUCH better as well.

  27. RIDERS OF JUSTICE is one of my favorite movies of recent years so yes, I would recommend most people watch that before POLAR. But I don’t really go by a “pick the best few movies by an actor and refuse to watch anything else by them” rule. He’s great in both!

  28. Man, y’all liked this one a lot more than me.
    The comic was originally wordless, then added dialogue for the collections that already felt unnecessary. The movie takes that, then adds LOTS more unnecessary story and characters that further water down the style and action that is Polar’s whole raison d’etre. An hour into the movie a group of assassins attack the protagonist in his cabin. That is the BEGINNING of the comic. Vanessa Hudgens character was invented for the movie and doesn’t fit the tone or story at all. The “twist” at the end feels pointless as it is basically immediately reversed, and any attempt at serious emotion does not fit in with the rest of the movie. It seems to be setting up the sequel to be like volume 2 where the protagonist trains a young woman to get revenge, but that is a different character and situation than Hudgens’ role. I found the stuff with the assassin team in the first half numbingly violent and boring. The humor in those scenes especially felt flat (outside of the window gag), there was no action or excitement, its repetitive and unnecessary to the plot.

    I had issues with Akerlund’s first movie Spun that pop up here again. Any place that is supposed to look dirty or poor has over the top production design. Like, if The Prodigy walked into this filthy room and started dancing it would work as a music video, but when it’s supposed to be an actual apartment someone lives in it looks cartoonish. And Akerlund fills his movies with weirdos and low lifes, but it often has a freak show quality to it. Like, ha ha this guy is morbidly obese isn’t that gross and hilarious?

    Matt Lucas as the villain is the movie’s biggest failure. Casting comedy and/or against-physical-type actors as bad guys is a long tradition. They can play their usual funny or charming style until they lose their shit, and it makes their scary moments more effective. Or they can play it completely serious and bring the energy and intensity they usually direct towards comedy to their bad guy. The script for Polar and Matt Lucas’ performance as villain Blut offer none of that. Blut is generally stupid and ineffective, but not funny. He is unlikeable, but he is not enough of a presence to be hateable like a good villain. He is sadistic and evil, but in a completely boring way. When the hero is captured, Blut strings him up and promises days of creative torture. Which turns out to be… pulling little chunks out of him with some plier/clipper things. And then doing the same thing another day. And then doing the same thing a third day. Once again, this violence is not compelling enough to be exciting or disturbing, its just there, taking up more of this movie’s unnecessary 118 minute run time.

    And yet I didn’t turn this movie off. Mads Mikkelson is great when he gets to be the silent man of action from the comic, and he does the best anyone could with the frequently cliched dialogue. I liked Katheryn Winnick as Vivian. Her character seems to be Mads’ contact/handler so she has some attachment to him, but she also works with Blut and has to maintain that relationship. It’s the closest this movie gets to an actual character or conflict, even if it doesn’t do much with it. Ruby O. Fee brings some energy as the assassin team’s honey pot Sindy (and is very easy on the eyes). I was baffled but amused by *redacted*’s random ass cameo. The attack on the cabin and the auto-gun segment at the end are pretty decent stagings of the big sequences that make up most of the comic. But goddamn is this movie highly flawed, and really shows how trying to add more story and context can take away from what made something cool in the first place.


  29. I was surprised to just now read that according to Variety last year they are/were doing another one called THE BLACK KAISER, with Mikkelsen and Hudgens returning. It was originally announced with Akerlund directing and described as “neither a prequel or sequel,” supposedly re-adapting the same comic? I’m guessing that really just means it’s a sequel that doesn’t require seeing the first one. As of May, Akerlund was replaced with Derrick Borte (UNHINGED).

  30. The second book starts with the Black Kaiser (Mikkelson’s character’s code name, you never get a real name in the book) in hiding/retirement after the events somewhat depicted in the first movie. A woman washes up in the arctic waters with a gunshot to the head. He nurses her back to health and trains her to get revenge on those who wronged her. So my guess was the first movie was setting up the invented Vanessa Hudgens’ character for that role. Although with her character’s story, I wonder who she would get revenge on? Mads killed her entire family, then Mads killed or dismantled the entire assassin company he worked for. I guess they said they would have to figure out who paid the company for the hit in the first place. But Mads still did it, which is why I found the whole “you killed my family, but now I forgive you!” reveal/reversal bit rushed and out of place. I guess we will have to wait and see if filming was delayed by the strikes or if it has just been dropped completely.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>