POLAR (2019) (NETFLIX)
SYNOPSIS: An assassin on the verge of retirement must put the good life on hold when his greedy boss sends a squad of young, ruthless killers to take him out.
‘Polar’ sees Mads Mikkelsen play the world’s most dangerous assassin named Duncan Vizla, and as much as that log line reads like hyperbole, we were very much psyched to see the Danish actor go bad-ass all over his enemies. Yet while we were looking forward to a significant amount of bloodletting, this blood-drenched action thriller goes so over-the-top that it becomes abhorrent, stuffed as it is with wall-to-wall violence which makes no apologies for drowning you in a sea of blood and guts.
In brief, Vizla is on the verge of mandatory retirement at the age of 50, and is waiting to collect his pension from the syndicate that he works for. Alas, its absurdly psychotic boss Mr Blut (Matt Lucas) has run into some cashflow issues, and chooses to kill off its former employees than pay them their retirement benefits. Mr Blut thus sends a motley crew of five loud, garish assassins to finish Vizla off before his last day of employment. Meanwhile, Vizla, still haunted by a botched job years ago that left several innocent victims dead, holes himself up in a cabin in Montana. There, Vizla befriends a neighbour Camille (Vanessa Hudgens) with a tragic past, whom as narrative convention dictates, will eventually help him regain his humanity.
The assassin-on-the-verge-of-retirement premise is a familiar one to be honest, but we were perfectly willing to overlook that given how it was adapted from a Dark Horse graphic novel of the same name. We were also just as willing to accept the artistic liberties which former music video director Jonas Akerlund had taken with the material, swapping the minimalistic black, white and dark orange palette of the novel for a much more colourful (read: rainbow saturated) signature. In fact, we were even willing to put up with the overly stylised visuals, complete with flashy character intro title screens, outlandish costumes and rapid-fire editing.
But what we cannot tolerate is the sadism, which unfortunately pervades so much of the movie that we can hardly find any redeeming quality to it. One of the most egregious scenes of this nature has the crew firing a thousand rounds ceaselessly into a morbidly obese guy’s midsection when an earlier shot doesn’t cut it. Another has the requisite sexy squad member Sindy (Ruby O. Fee) taking revenge on a pervert who thought she was there to indulge his BDSM fantasises. And perhaps the most awful sequence is that which sees Vizla being chained up and tortured for days on end, after being tricked by a former hitman (Richard Dreyfuss). We get that it is meant to set the stage for his revenge later on, but the brutality is utterly senseless and repulsive.
To his credit, Mikkelsen tries to maintain a dignified portrait of Vizla throughout the sheer idiocy. His wolfish charisma is just as magnetic as it was on TV’s ‘Hannibal’, and he brings his usual gravitas that the movie frankly does not deserve at all. Hudgens too deserves credit for her sensitive performance, whose scenes with Mikkelsen are probably the best thing that the movie has to offer. Aside from them, Kathryn Winnick is completely wasted as a one-note femme fatale that is Mr Blut’s right-hand woman – and let’s just say the less we talk or see about the bunch of loud, garish assassins sent to kill Vizla the better.
Ultimately, ‘Polar’ is a missed opportunity at turning Mads Mikkelsen into a late-career action star, just as ‘Taken’ was for Liam Neeson. Mikkelsen certainly looks the part, and as the only worthwhile action sequence set in a tight corridor shows, capable of backing it up with some lethally cool moves. But there is a difference between the kind of violence that thrills and the kind that is simply repugnant; unfortunately, ‘Polar’s’ brand of cruelty belongs squarely in the latter category, and is made worse by a palpable sense of sadism which it is not afraid to inflict even on its lead character. You’re better off waiting for Mikkelsen’s next big-screen turn in ‘Arctic’, unless of course graphic torture and wanton killing is kind of guilty pleasure.
Review by Gabriel Chong