The latest Netflix film, Polar, begins with Johnny Knoxville snorting cocaine in the middle of nowhere, receiving oral sex from a busty woman who proclaims that “It’s blow time,” and then suddenly involved in a bloody, pulpy shootout with four assassins, including the busty lady. You know what kind of movie this is by the time that opening scene ends. Jonas Akerlund’s latest takes his tried-and-true music video direction and applies it to a bloody, highly stylized world of assassination. Unsurprisingly adapted from a graphic novel, Polar is a movie that eventually finds its footing — about halfway through — after it ditches every terrible tendency that populates the first half. From misogynistic characters to a screenplay that wants all women to either live through trauma or be used for sex, there is a lot to find distasteful before it’s all excised for a more straight-forward plot of ‘man against the world.’
This Mads Mikkelsen vehicle has two opposing ideas competing for screen time: the lavish, excessive lifestyles of the youth, and the cool, suave sophistication of the experienced. As Duncan Vizla (Mikkelsen) — otherwise known as “The Black Kaiser” — nears retirement from a job as a contract killer, he has started distancing himself from his company, and is living in a rural northern town. He’s getting too old, and is finally getting ready to settle down somewhere and find peace. That is, until a loophole in his contract with his company has his boss, Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas), hire a mass of assassins to take him out before he can retire and collect his payout.
That excessive, youthful virility is what bogs Polar down and makes it feel like a film from a bygone era. A decade ago it would have been uttered in the same breath as 2006’s Smokin’ Aces or 2004’s Torque (also directed by another prolific music video director, Joseph Kahn). It has the same reluctance to sit still as a Neveldine/Taylor movie, and introduces characters with the atrocious graphic novel typography that we’ve seen most recently in Suicide Squad. The assassins hunting The Black Kaiser seem to be adrenaline junkies, killing for the thrill. Every time they’re on screen, the film matches them with overly saturated colors and tons of edits to make the scene move at a rapid rate.
In stark contrast to that, everything in The Black Kaiser’s story is muted, cold, and calculated. When he’s in assassin mode, it carries a little bit of that faster editing and extravagance, but the movie really tailors itself to a slower pace for Duncan, one which works much better than that of his youthful counterparts. It’s more a story of a man hiding himself away because he doesn’t want to be lauded; he’s trying to find salvation from a past he can’t seem to move on from. That stuff is all way more interesting than a bunch of contract killers wanting to end someone’s retirement.
Polar all comes to a head by the last hour of the film — when the action finally starts involving The Black Kaiser — and we see just how good at his job he really is. The plot also cashes in on the mysterious girl-next-door, played by Vanessa Hudgens, and how her story intersects is also more interesting than all those excessive tendencies. By the last half, it finally feels like Polar finds a way to mesh everything together instead of having the debauchery feel so isolated from the sophistication. Mads Mikkelsen brings so much to why it works, because he can exist within the pulp and the somberness at the same time.
The last half of the movie is also where the score from Joel Zimmerman (a.k.a Deadmau5) finally adds to the proceedings, as everything that’s happening now fits perfectly with his electronic compositions. For his first feature length score, it’s solid; I definitely think it’s something more suited to listening to on its own than with the movie itself, but there is something genius about having Deadmau5 do the score for a movie filled with so much youthful mentality, yet for him to have something far more minimalist than his young fans would expect.
Perhaps the most unsurprising thing is that this comes from Jonas Akerlund. As a music video director, his stylistic choices feel very in line with the art of making a music video; this movie could be boiled down to great clips, and there’s an excellent hallway shootout (isn’t there always?) that is a lot of fun. That Akerlund’s directing style is restless — just like Joseph Kahn’s — is apt, but Kahn made his excessive action film in 2004, whereas Akerlund is trying to make it in 2019. And he has Lords of Chaos coming out this year too, which seems more up his alley (this is someone who drummed for prolific metal act Bathory at one point, and whose first music video credit was for doom metal band, Candlemass).
Polar just wants to cash in on the John Wick hype, all while indulging in all the trademarks of sleazier action movies. It’s a movie that feels too much like it was written for young boys to watch illegally and talk about with their friends as they skip fourth period social studies. It is only fitting that the film finds its release on Netflix, where adolescents can watch it with relative ease. As previously mentioned, Polar does finally get somewhere satisfying, and Mads Mikkelsen comes out of this seeming bad-movie-proof. He never skips a beat, and makes things better every time he’s on-screen. It’s a shame that the film even attempts to take its eyes off of him, as he makes an irrefutable case for leading his own movie about a world of assassins — just a better one than this.
Directed by: Jonas Åkerlund
Screenplay by: Jayson Rothwell (based on: Polar: Came From the Cold)
by Víctor Santos
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Matt Lucas
Music by: Deadmau5
Cinematography: Pär M. Ekberg
Edited by: Doobie White
Release date: January 25, 2019 (Netflix)
Country: United States/Germany