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Netflix’s assassin flick Polar has a bad case of brain freeze

Mads Mikkelsen can’t save this would-be John Wick

Mads Mikkelsen as the Black Kaiser in Polar.

There is a line of reasoning that dictates that any movie featuring Mads Mikkelsen with laser-gun-cannons attached to his hands should be at least a little fun. Netflix’s Polar, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, somehow defies the odds.

The webcomic/graphic novel upon which the movie is based (written and illustrated by Victor Santos) is a stylish work rendered in black, white, and red, and originally sans dialogue. By contrast, Polar feels like Smokin’ Aces — the oversaturated, “edgy”, 2006 shoot-em-up about a bunch of assassins going at it in all senses of the phrase. That is to say Polar has none of its source material’s grace and poise. And more’s the pity, given that this is one of the rare roles that allows Mikkelsen to show off his sense of comic timing.

Mikkelsen stars as Duncan Vizla, also known as “the Black Kaiser,” an assassin just a few days away from hitting 50, retiring from the job, and collecting a handsome payout. Unfortunately, the firm he works for has started instituting new rules when it comes to retiring employees. Instead of hemorrhaging money via retirement packages, big boss Blut (Matt Lucas) has decided to kill off the would-be retirees instead.

Just give Mikkelsen his own In Bruges or something. Come on!

For a good chunk of its running time, Polar fractures into two parts. The first follows Duncan as he goes about his unremarkable civilian life in Montana, trying to ignore the occasional guilt-induced nightmares about his past kills while failing repeatedly to form meaningful connections with living things, whether they’re pets or people. The second follows the group of younger assassins dispatched to dispatch Duncan, who all fulfill paper-thin molds like “tall,” “druggie,” and “sexy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Duncan’s storyline is infinitely more interesting, mostly because it’s under less pressure to be “cool.” Duncan’s social awkwardness — particularly around his new neighbor Camille (Vanessa Hudgens) and the local children — is less expected (and thereby more compelling) than the braggadocio of Blut’s lapdogs, who all come off like Suicide Squad rejects. Duncan is also shot with more restraint, largely framed in blacks and greys, whereas each scene with the assassins is color-saturated to the point of looking sunbleached.

Unfortunately, when the two paths finally converge, it’s the more aggressive side of the movie that wins out, and whatever sense of subtlety and pathos the movie had is left for dead. The laser-gun-cannon hand rig is cool, as is the eventual hallway fight scene (apparently now a prerequisite in any action movie or series), but when Åkerlund goes for action rather than introspection, the aforementioned comparison to Smokin’ Aces feels apt in more ways than one.

At its worst, Polar feels like a relic from 2006, if not earlier. Gratuitous shots of scantily clad women in (and out of) flagrante and gross-out jokes at the expense of the heavier-set characters comprise a not-insignificant part of the film. Åkerlund makes an attempt at having his cake and eating it too, as there’s a scene in which a sexual assaulter gets his comeuppance, but this isn’t a case of one not-quite-corrective measure excusing scene after scene of transparent objectification.

The would-be gang of assassins.

Perhaps the aptest metaphor for the film is the sequence in which Blut tortures an unfortunate character for all of the trouble he’s caused. In a movie like this, Blut’s vengeance should pop. The parts are all there: Lucas’ over-the-top performance, the victim suspended from the ceiling, Blut’s penchant for putting a record on as he works, the list goes on. The ingredients should produce something interesting. But the sequence never escalates or grows; Blut goes for the same tools and tricks each time. He’s got no imagination — and neither, it seems, does the film.

The story of an assassin trying to get out of the game is well-populated enough to comprise its own genre at this point, which demands a certain level of craftsmanship or innovation of any new film attempting to break into the field. Mikkelsen getting a turn at the John Wick song and dance ought to be a winning formula — and he’s doing his level best with what he’s been given — but Polar isn’t good enough or gonzo enough to make it all the way to the finish line. It’s disappointing more than anything else.

Again, despite most often being cast as a baddie in English-language films, Mikkelsen is a gifted comic actor (just take a gander at Adam’s Apples, Men & Chicken, The Green Butchers, or even At Eternity’s Gate). The few moments in which Polar exploits his lighter side are the film’s best, and the only instances in which it actually succeeds in subverting or challenging audience expectations, or coming close to being fun. Every other set piece (mid-sex scene shoot-out, Batman-esque drop-in, decapitation) is copped from some other action movie, to diminishing returns.

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