Jonas Åkerlund’s Polar is a bad movie. What’s more, it’s gratuitous, nihilistic, hollow, and for all of the style that Åkerlund drenches every single scene in, deeply un-entertaining. Indeed, it’s so bad that I feel it necessary to apologize for hyping it earlier this month.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Duncan Vizla, aka The Black Kaiser. He’s the world’s most feared hitman but his reign’s coming to an end. He’s just weeks away from retirement and a healthy pension from his employers, a shadowy organization called Damocles. But when they send him on one last job, he discovers that he’s been set up. Turns out, Damocles doesn’t want to pay him the millions of dollars they owe him because it’ll hurt their prospects of being bought out.
Vizla flees to a small town in Montana, intending to live out the rest of his days in obscurity. He befriends his neighbor, a young woman named Camille (Vanessa Hudgens) who apparently suffers from some form of PTSD. He even gets a puppy, though he unfortunately shoots it while having a flashback to an old hit gone horribly wrong. But Damocles and its president — played with extra layers of sleazy scene-chewing by Matt Lucas (Doctor Who) — are still hot on Vizla’s trail, intent on killing him.
So I guess it’s a good thing for Vizla and his new friend that he’s the Black Kaiser.
It’s impossible to watch Polar and not immediately compare it to the John Wick movies. After all, both are highly stylized and ultra-violent tales of elite assassins who try to leave their bloody life behind, only to get pulled in and forced to take a stand against former associates.
But compared to Polar and its sheer excessiveness, the John Wick movies — despite probably having higher body counts — feel like an Andrei Tarkovsky film. Much of this is due to director Åkerlund, the man behind the infamous music video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” And with Polar, Åkerlund indulges in the same sort of hedonistic displays of debauchery, from the gleeful bloodshed to female characters that are supposed to femme fatales but really exist only to wear skimpy clothes, do drugs, and/or offer oral sex.
Åkerlund tosses in some winks of dark humor, apparently in order to make it easier to stomach the aforementioned gratuitousness. Some scenes, like Vizla teaching schoolkids the proper way to use a khukuri knife, could work in a better movie. But others, like Damocles assassins encountering an an obese, foul-mouthed man who refuses to die, and shooting him again and again and again and again, are initially disgusting but eventually become tedious and boring.
All of this is a shame because Mikkelsen, with his haunted and haggard visage, would make for a compelling anti-hero. And though Hudgens’ Camille is intended to represent some last shot at redemption for Vizla, her character is ultimately nothing more than a damsel in distress whose torment exists just to give him a legitimate excuse to snap limbs, chop off heads, and fill nameless goons with lots of hot lead. (And no, the obligatory “twist” ending doesn’t fix this.)
Movies with hitmen as heroes are problematic, given the inherent wickedness of the “hired killer” profession. The best hitman movies are those that somehow offset the bloodiness. In the case of John Wick, that’s accomplished by the movie’s own mythology of an alternate, rarefied world of killers, not to mention giving the titular character an actual emotional arc (which begins with the brutal killing of his dog, but more broadly, his wife’s death). A sense of tragedy underlies the ensuing action, however bloody it might get, as if everything could’ve been avoided with a little compassion or responsibility — which keeps the movie’s violence from feeling like violence for its own sake, or for the sake of simple thrills.
Or consider John Woo’s The Killer, arguably the greatest hitman movie of all time. Though more stylish than anything Åkerlund does in Polar, The Killer plays up Woo’s pet themes of honor among thieves and unlikely brotherhoods — in this case, the sense of camaraderie that develops between Chow Yun-fat’s assassin and the hard-nosed cop (played by Danny Lee) hellbent on bringing him in. Similar to John Wick, that gives The Killer a sense of tragedy and pathos that prevents it from sinking into blood-soaked excess.
But blood-soaked excess is ultimately all that Polar can offer viewers. And it’s not even an entertaining blood-soaked excess. The over-the-top style never transmutes into substance, and it’s certainly not titillating. In the end, Polar is just an empty, gratuitous, and boring film that doesn’t even satisfy the simplest criteria for what constitutes a late night popcorn movie. Or put another away, if you think Polar might be the next John Wick, don’t waste your time. Just watch John Wick again.