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Movie Review: Polar

A look at 'Polar', new to Netflix

Directed by Jonas Akerlund
On Netflix

Polar tries so, so, so very hard to tickle the lizard part of the human brain. It tries so very hard. Nudity? Check. Over stylized gun play? Yep. Cartoonish villains? So, so many cartoonish villains. Sexy times? Oh, yeah. Torture? Yep. Over saturated colour scheme that makes A Clockwork Orange look like a textbook sample of restraint? Yep.

Polar is a Netflix original based on a webcomic series. The on-line comic is dialogue free, a story told completely through images – images that lean towards minimalism and use of negative space. The movie based on Polar the webcomic wants to be many, many different things. The one thing it appears it doesn't want to be is an adaptation of a webcomic that is an example of minimalism as storytelling device.

What does Polar the Netflix movie want to be? It wants to be Shoot 'Em Up, it wants to be Smokin' Aces. It wants to be Revolver or one of the Cranks or maybe one of the later Transporters. It wants to be Lucky Number Slevin, Natural Born Killers, and Love and a .45. But what it most wants to be when it grows up is John Wick mashed with one of the Tarantino wannabes that haunted the shelves of Blockbuster. Polar's tone and pacing are all over the place, it never fully commits to any of the many stylistically violent pieces its aping so badly. It's more Reindeer Games than 2 Days in the Valley. Polar is the anti-John Wick, it's the anti-Tarantino. 

What is Polar about? Well, let me tell you. There's this assassin, Duncan 'The Black Kaiser' Vizla, played by Mads Mikkelsen, and he works for Damocles and his retirement is coming up and he lives in a sparse little cabin in south-central Ontario – sorry, Montana – and on the day of his retirement his employer is supposed to cut him a large cheque. But his employer doesn't want to cut large cheques and sends out the world's most annoying assassination team to take out the retiring assassins because, well, reasons. Duncan has a neighbour, Camille, played by Vanessa Hudgens, and she is broken and easily frightened and jumps at loud sounds, spilling coffee and knocking over displays in the general store. The world's most annoying assassination team is tasked with finding Duncan 'The Black Kaiser' Vizla and stuff happens and every second spent with the world's most annoying assassination team makes Polar a sludge to get through. Polar may be the first action film where the quiet moments in between the action are when the film picks up. 

Seriously. I can't think of any other action film off the top of my head where most of the action was so boring. In particular, any of the action involving the world's most annoying assassination team. Collectively they are a black hole where chemistry goes to die. But even the action that doesn't involve the world's most annoying assassination team makes little sense logistically or in the reality of the world that the film has created. Look, in most action films, the beats between the action are where the film allows the audience to take a breath, where suspense builds, where the hero and villain try to come up with new and exciting ways to make stuff blow up real good. In Polar the quieter moments of the film are when it actually feels like it has a pulse. Watching Duncan 'The Black Kaiser' Vizla shop, watching him watch TV, feed his goldfish, spend quiet moments with Camille in a diner or teaching her how to shoot a gun. During those moments Polar felt like a movie made by people who had experience making movies. And then we would return to the adventures of the world's most annoying assassination team and Polar feels like it was made by people who thought the problem with Natural Born Killers was its subtlety and nuance.

It's not all completely awful in Polarville. Mads Mikkelsen is Mads Mikkelsen and is prevented by the rules governing our universe to give less than a Mads Mikkelsen performance. And we get to see a lot of Mads Mikkelsen that would normally be covered by a swimsuit. Vanessa Hudgens makes an interesting and intriguing and mysterious and lost character even more interesting and intriguing and mysterious and lost by giving Camille layers and a realistic plainness and sadness. Matt Lucas, as Blut, the owner of Damocles, steers hard into the camp. Duncan 'The Black Kaiser' Vizla has a truly cool character trait where he uses a cell phone for about thirty seconds, disconnects, destroys the sim card, replaces the sim card, redials, talks for about thirty seconds, disconnects, repeat. Katheryn Winnick as Vivian, a Damocles handler, plays the exasperation during these phone conversations note perfect. The torture is handled with something almost approaching subtlety and nuance, more inference than actual gruesomeness, except when it isn't. The last half hour or so is a much better film than the first hour and a half. 

I'm mad about Mads. But sometimes our favourite actors are the only good things about truly bad films. Jaws 4. Zardoz. Kate & Leopold. Green Lantern. Lucy. Sometimes it happens and, as fans of these talents, we have to live with the fact that sometimes bad films happen to good people. Polar is one of those times.

It's impossible to say when in the process a film starts falling apart. It could be that adapting a dialogue-free, minimalist, experimental webcomic series for the screen might not have been as well thought out as anyone hoped. Maybe the director of Spun and Taylor Swift: The 1989 World Tour Live and Rammstein: Paris wasn't up to the task. Maybe the writer of the remake of the axe wielding Santa movie Silent Night wasn't able to get a handle on the subject matter. None of us can really say when Polar went off the rails, but off the rails it went.