Netflix used to be off-limits for me on this blog as I subscribed to the belief that the streaming service was more akin to a direct-to-video format than a quality film producer with a few exceptions. However in 2018 my perspective changed. Films like “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, “Birdbox”, “Roma”, and yes the much reviled “The Cloverfield Paradox” helped me earn a new respect for the service and what it had to offer. While not every film they release deserves to be considered potential appointment viewing, it’s first heavily marketed film of 2018 had me curious enough to take a look. That movie is “Polar”, a picture based on a graphic novel that promised shades of “John Wick” with maybe a little more comedic flair. A lot has been said about this movie with some calling it a cheap, inferior rip-off and others labeling it a fun and action-packed viewing experience. I’m here to give you my take. This is my review of “Polar”.
Based on the comic series of the same name, “Polar” stars Mads Mikkelson as Duncan, an expert and highly respected assassin nicknamed “the Black Kaiser”, who is 14 days away from his 50th birthday, the required retirement age set by his contracting employer, a company called Damocles. The company automatically releases the pensions of the assassins upon their retirement and is owned by the egomaniacal and arrogant Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas), who plans to kill his assassins before their retirements so that their pensions revert back to his company. Unaware of the betrayal, Duncan takes one final mission and learns he is the actual target. Determined to avoid paying the pension, Blut puts his best assassins on the case to take down Duncan who has attempted to settle into a peaceful life while bonding with his shy neighbor Camille (Vanessa Hudgens) who becomes an unintentional target in the crossfire.
The first thing I will say about “Polar” is that while it lacks a decent villain, its “heroes” are pretty solid. Mads Mikkelsen plays an awesome assassin as Duncan and brings charisma, confidence and badassery to the role. Duncan is haunted by his deeds and clearly just wants to settle down and leave his assassin past behind. He balances his fearless nature with a relatable edge that allows the viewer to see him as both a superior assassin and a kind-hearted human being. This is because Mikkelsen meshes well with the film’s other leading “hero” actor Vanessa Hudgens who plays Camille, Duncan’s shy neighbor. For me, Hudgens is the surprise performance of this film because I expected over the top villains and for Mikkelsen to portray a convincing badass. I did NOT expect Hudgens to provide so much sincere emotional depth in her character. She steals almost every scene she’s in as a clearly damaged young woman with a past and while I don’t feel like the final moments do justice to her humanity I do feel like Hudgens proves her worth as she sheds her Disney star persona for something a little more raw. I’ll be criticizing this movie a lot of it’s lack of substance, but the relationship between the two main characters is one of the very few truly memorable and sincere aspects of this film.
On the other hand, the villains in this film are tragically mishandled. “Polar” features Matt Lucas as Mr. Blut, the main antagonist, as well as Katheryn Winnick as assassin handler Vivian and several smaller names as a group of assassins tasked with taking out Duncan. Other than Winnick, who is the most charming of the baddies, none of these villains leave much of a mark. Looking as the assassins targeting Duncan, they each have their own style, but in the end they’re just a generic group of hired hands that receive far too little screen time to do them justice. The worst offender though is Matt Lucas as Blut. Now I’m not familiar with the source material and could not find a whole lot on Mr. Blut as a character outside the film if he exists in the comics at all, but in the movie he’s a horrible villain. First off, Matt Lucas is known more for his comedy and watching him try to play a maniacal villain is painful. He comes off as a caricature or parody but it doesn’t seem like that was the goal. This is just one of many way this movie feels confused. But the worst aspect Mr. Blut is that he’s just not intimidating no matter how hard Matt Lucas tries to sell it. There’s not one moment in the movie where I could have justified anyone taking this guy seriously and choosing to work for him, even for the money. His plan sucks and is filled with holes especially when he is aware of the threat he is creating by trying to screw over the most skilled assassin on his payroll. The whole plot makes no sense to me and as hard as Lucas tries his character is not intimidating, he’s not fun to watch and he’s downright forgettable.
I will say this, “Polar” is far from boring. If you go in expecting nothing more than bloodshed you’ll probably enjoy what this film has to offer. While the action set pieces aren’t as memorable as similar films like “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde”, “Polar” does contain a certain charm and successfully captures the allure of these kinds of pictures with its own violent flair. There’s a scene where Duncan fights his way through a tunnel filled with guards that’s awesomely shot and choreographed and another badass scene where he uses a neat set of motion-operated machine guns and it’s scenes like this that provide the most entertainment value in the movie. Despite its flaws, it’s still really cool to see how these assassins work and see Duncan get the upper hand as he is underestimated time and time again. Seeing him shift seamlessly from a soft-spoken, kind-hearted retiree to a badass who can take it and dish it out it just plain awesome. As bland and underdeveloped as many of the bad guys are, the assassin team at least are still fun to watch and I wish we got to see more from them instead of putting so much focus on the underwhelming Mr. Blut. The execution may be flawed, but “Polar” does enough to provide a thrilling two-hours of escapism entertainment that makes it a somewhat engaging time waster.
But really that’s all “Polar’ is, a waste of time. Sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a bad way. As I said it does offer some fun action, but it has a hard time finding much substance beyond that. It does try though by delving into the relationship between Duncan and Camille which adds a more human element to the narrative and eventually culminates in a nice twist that could speak to the direction of a potential sequel, but the problem is I could never really figure out what kind of film “Polar” wants to be. It’s bad enough that “Polar” is muddle by a script that tries too hard sometimes and not hard enough the rest of the time as well as poor pacing. But the lack of conviction to the “heart” of the film makes “Polar” feel like a jumbled mess unable of even unwilling to decide on a tone, direction or even any sort of solid moral core. Let’s compare it to “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde” again. They use loss and the concept of revenge perfectly to balance their character’s humanity without sacrificing the action elements that make them fun experiences. “Polar” can’t quite find the same balance resulting in a movie that feels confused and unsure of which direction its wants to go. Sometimes it acts like it wants to subvert the traditional formula while other times it feels like it wants to embrace it. “Polar” can never decide on its identity leaving viewers unsure of what they’re supposed to take away from the experience. It’s an odd product that seems like it wants to be more than it is, and yet also appears to want to be everything but what you’d expect.
The reality of “Polar” is that it relies heavily on proven formulas and you can tell it’s trying to be its own thing, but a lack of a clear goal or identity makes it a pretty basic and somewhat confusing experience at the end of the day. While Mads Mikkelsen and Vanessa Hudgens do give it their all and prove to be the best parts of this picture, no one else really shines and the villain is as forgettable and pathetic as any action antagonist I can remember over the last few years. “Polar” is fun, I’ll give it that. It has plenty of action for those looking for a mind-numbing few hours to escape reality. But, if you’re looking for a more memorable, unique or layered experience than that, well, you’ve come to the wrong place. Even as a standard action movie though “Polar” can’t hold a candle to those that came before it and while I won’t go so far as to call the formula it embraces tired “Polar” is evidence that as exhilarating as assassin revenge movies can be it takes a little more thought and conviction to make it all work.