Back in 2014 I went to check out a movie I knew almost nothing about, primarily just because I have some sort of un-diagnosed compulsion to see a movie in a theater as often as possible. That movie was John Wick, and I was instantly blown away by it. There’s been a long tradition of movies about the world’s greatest assassin having to come out of retirement and get revenge on the people who have done him wrong. It wasn’t that element that was so unique. To me at least, the reason John Wick succeeded the way it did was the blend of stellar action and a truly unique and fascinating world that it built beautifully. And, after John Wick and it’s sequel reached the stature that they have, especially as the two directors of the film have gone on to dominate the modern action film since then, it became clear that there was something magical about John Wick that the rest of the action genre was going to have to start trying to copy in a vain attempt to grab some magic for themselves. And, the beginning of these faux-John Wick films have started to be released onto the public, with incredibly shaky results. Take Netflix’s attempt in getting in on the colorful assassin movie genre with Polar, a movie that takes Mads Mikkelsen as the starring old assassin fighting his way through a cadre of colorful assassins. And, it’s pretty awful!
Polar follows a man named Duncan Vizla, also known as the Black Kaiser. Duncan is an incredibly successful hitman working for a large company of assassins known as Damocles. He’s quite famous among the assassins of the world, but he’s rapidly approaching his fiftieth birthday, which is the mandatory retirement age for assassins in Damocles. He owns quite a bit of property, has saved for his retirement, and even gets a pretty substantial pension from Damocles, so Duncan is ready to ride out the rest of his life in quiet solitude in a small town. Unfortunately, that’s not really going to fly with the head of Damocles, a sadistic fop named Mr. Blut. He’s apparently trying to sell Damocles, and in order to make the company look more appealing he’s decided to eliminate the pensions of these retired hitmen by killing them before they reach fifty. So, he sends out a squad of five ridiculous killers to track down the various aging hitmen in order to kill them, and Duncan is their highest priority. Blut attempts to take down Duncan in more elaborate ways at first, like sending him to assassinate some other assassin in the hopes that he’ll be killed in the process, but when that fails and Duncan starts to get suspicious, the game is on.
Blut’s little squad of retirement killers start travelling all around the country, trying to track down Duncan’s secret retirement spot, running into all sorts of problems while Blut gets increasingly irritated. And, while all of this is going on Duncan has started to befriend a fragile and anxiety-ridden young woman who has moved into the small town he lives in named Camille. The two actually start to become pretty close, which perhaps makes Duncan a little sloppy when the retirement killers arrive at his cabin. He does manage to kill them all, but becomes convinced that he’s going to have to bring the fight to Blut. He attempts to get help form his mentor, one of the only older assassins still alive, and ends up getting betrayed immediately, given over to Blut. Duncan is tortured for quite a while at the hands of Blut, even losing an eye in the process. But, through sheer force of will Duncan is able to escape Blut’s clutches and goes on a murderous rampage, killing everyone at Damocles. He sets himself up with a crazy machine-gun operated by some Nintendo Power-Gloves and just slaughters everyone in his wake, before finally killing Blut with an ax. Unfortunately, when he returns home he finds something shocking. Camille wants to kill him too. It turns out that she’s the daughter of a man Duncan assassinated decades ago, and who he’s actually been supported over the years. But, because of their friendship, she decides not to kill Duncan, and instead ask his help in tracking down the people who ordered her parent’s killing to get her own vengeance.
Polar is not a good film. Which was kind of clearly going to happen, and at the same time sort of disappointing. Netflix has not exactly been on a roll in regards to their original film content, but the idea of taking a pretty tried and true formula, sticking Mads Mikkelsen into it, and pumping in as much style as they possibly could kind of makes sense. And, the decision to hire a director primarily known for music videos and concert movies kind of also falls into that decision. They wanted something flashy, kinetic, and that would draw people in quickly while browsing Netflix, probably not really paying much attention as to what they’re watching. And, I guess they succeeded in doing that. But, not much else. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where Mads Mikkelsen has put in a bad performance, and this movie doesn’t even break that streak. He is way too good for this movie, in a way that makes it even more frustrating, because if this film had been given to people who actually knew what they were doing he could have really done something special with this movie. But, as it stands, it’s the type of movie that you can barely remember just hours after having watched it, just a string of unpleasant cliches and an overall reek of desperation to be John Wick.
Which ended up making me consider John Wick in ways I hadn’t before. Namely, just trying to figure out why it works when something like Polar doesn’t. Because, Polar does seem to be cribbing pretty closely. They’re both stories about incredibly proficient assassins coming out of retirement in order to fight against a whole bunch of colorful killers who have built their own eccentric society that most people don’t realize actually exists leading to a whole lot of over-the-top action. But, I think the biggest realization I had after watching Polar is that the John Wick guys, Derek Kolstad and Chad Stahleski, must be huge nerds. They made a lovingly intricate world, full of their own aesthetics and loves, that was granular to the point that they had their own currency. It’s clearly a work of love, something that they must have been pouring over for years, bringing all the absurdity to life in a way that balanced it out. But, this movie doesn’t have that. It tries to, but it ends up reading more like a bunch of horny teenage boys had John Wick described to them, and didn’t have the patience to make it take place in an interesting world. Instead this film is just a bunch of frenetic shots stuffed to the gills with as much as the budget could afford, just creating an exhausting experience. The movie desperately needed to slow down, figure out what it was, and focus a little more on its characters. Which makes the fact that it’s based on a long-running comic even more bizarre. I’ve never read Polar the comic, but I have to assume that this is a loose adaptation, one that was taking some very cursory elements from the story before slapping them on a haphazard action film. Because nothing about this film seemed particularly well-thought out. But, it definitely makes you respect movies like John Wick that get it right a hell of a lot more.
Polar was written by Jayson Rothwell, directed by Jonas Akerlund, and released by Netflix, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk