Polar movie review: This Netflix action film relies too much on Mads Mikkelsen to lift it out of mediocrity
In Polar, Mads Mikkelsen lends an emotional gravitas to an otherwise run-of-the-mill hitman character the writers present him with.
Almost immediately after Netflix dropped the trailer of Polar a couple of weeks ago, the internet started obsessing over the new John Wick. Usually, that is not a good sign. While the John Wick series has gone from strength to strength, similar films that tried cashing in on its success have failed miserably. The trailer of Polar promised a lot of the same slam-bang stylish action sequences, eccentric characters and quicksilver dialogue. Oh and a retired hitman who is forced into one last job. But there was a silver lining in the presence of Mads Mikkelsen in the central role of Duncan Vizla.
The film turns out the same way. It starts out on a promising, Guy Ritchiesque note. The opening sequence is risqué, blindingly colourful, funny and sharply written, and packs a delightful little twist at the end. But it gradually devolves into a tonal mess full of half-baked characters with a taste for ultra-violence, including the villain, or a poor caricature of one. The sole purpose of this glossy parade of random characters is to build towards an extended torture sequence which, had it not been for Mikkelsen’s sheer force of will, would have deflated into a distasteful joke. Polar lacks the most essential ingredient of the John Wick success story: focus. The emperor’s lack of clothes comes into full view when director Jonas Akerlund throws in a gratuitous twist at the end, diluting the already shoddy emotional core, before throwing his film to the wolves of franchise-dom.
Mikkelsen somehow manages to stand tall amidst the mess being piled up hurriedly around him. The director’s confusions about his film pose a more dangerous threat than Blut, the filthy rich villain, or the army of bespangled, merciless hitmen he unleashes on Vizla. Blut runs a private firm of hitmen who carry out jobs for him across the world. Lately, he has started incurring a mountain of debt. He decides to save money by getting rid of the older generation of hitmen in order to avoid paying out their final compensations. With Vizla, his greatest assassin, up for retirement in a couple of weeks, Blut decides to kill him to avoid parting with a huge sum.
It appears like an ideal set-up for a cracking action film. A couple of well orchestrated action sequences in different countries, a shoot-out in the snows of Montana, a mega showdown for a finale, and Polar would have been what it set out to be in the first place. But then Akerlund loses focus. Blut’s A-team of young hitmen are carved out of cardboard. None of them possesses a personality. As part of a group, they go about the business of killing, almost always without a semblance of consequences. A junkie is thrown in simply to be used as a prop later. If it was not for the substantial time they spend in the film, the A-team would have passed for props as well.
Akerlund then throws in Camille (Vanessa Hudgens) to this mix. She lives in a cabin across the lake from Vizla’s in Montana, the place he has chosen for his retirement. The germ of a tender relationship begins to develop between her and Vizla, an emotional strand that is not vital but not entirely superfluous. But Akerlund proceeds to ruin the emotional foundation of his film towards its end, and with a twist no less.
The writing gets poorer as the film progresses, relying more and more on Mikkelsen to pull it out of mediocrity. That said, the action sequences themselves could have worked wonders in a more focused, carefully assembled film. While not ingenious and flawed, they are interesting nonetheless, putting Mikkelsen’s remarkable physical prowess as an actor on grisly, blood-addled display. Evidently, the director is more at home during the visually lush sequences, the warp and weft of narrative escaping his attention, thereby ruining the film.
Mikkelsen lends an emotional gravitas to an otherwise run-of-the-mill hitman character the writers present him with. Even as the narrative shape-shifts for the worse around him, he manages to hold on to the taciturn core of Vizla, a man who appears to be perpetually holding on to a joke or two he is too reserved or bruised to share with the world. The only other convincing performance comes from Katheryn Winnick whose Vivian is thrust with the unenviable job of killing an old friend and colleague ie Vizla. Her aborted or all too quickly terminated exchanges with Vizla add a layer of authenticity to an otherwise plain film beneath all the glitter and unwieldy style.
Polar is adapted from a famed graphic novel, which this reviewer has not read. While it explains the visual palette, it is hoped that it does not account for the increasing ridiculousness of the story. A film of this kind works wonders when wedded to an economy of narrative. It is clear opening scene onward that the director set out to make a fun film. The cracks in Polar begin to show the moment Akerlund digresses from that path, before the misled emotional investiture and poorly formed characters bring the house down entirely.
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