It would be one thing if “Polar” were director Jonas Åkerlund’s satirical send-up of American hyper-stylized, hyper-violent exploitative genre pictures. But it’s not — or at least it arrives a decade too late to register as such. What’s clear is that this abhorrent actioner (an adaptation of Victor Santos’ graphic novel “Polar: Came From the Cold”) about a morally conflicted hitman with a price on his head is vulgar auteurism at its most depraved. It even has the audacity to cloak many of its repugnant sentiments and debauchery in the guise of female empowerment. Gratuitous sex, gruesome torture, copious amounts of gore, and garish imagery populate the picture. Those qualities might be reason enough for some to watch, although a great many others would do well to scroll right past it on their Netflix feeds.
Top assassin Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen), known in his field by the nickname “the Black Kaiser,” is two weeks away from retirement — and feeling the aches and pains of years on the job. He’s being forced out due to a long-standing company policy barring field agents over the age of 50. Truth be told, he’s ready to be done with the physical and psychological demands of the career. He’s plagued by jarring images from a botched job years prior that left innocent victims dead.
Living the quiet life in a remote cabin in a small, snowy Montana town doesn’t really suit him either — especially without the hope of companionship. When startled awake one night, he accidentally shoots his newly acquired French Bulldog point blank. Take that, John Wick! This tormented hero is much more of a lone wolf. That doesn’t stop Duncan from striking up a friendship with the skittish, traumatized young woman next door, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens, whose character’s name isn’t uttered until late in the feature).
Duncan’s frozen ennui begrudgingly thaws when his boss Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas, in a wildly over-the-top performance), the colorful, corpulent leader of the Damocles Agency, assigns one final mission to his star employee. Another of the firm’s recently retired triggermen (Johnny Knoxville) was gunned down, and they want Duncan to kill those who did it. However, since Duncan is the best in the biz, he senses this gig is a ruse to take him out before the cash-strapped company must pay his pension. And it’s not long until he figures out that the elite covert operatives in hot pursuit are bankrolled by his own boss.
Grounding Mikkelsen’s character and his redemptive, fairy-tale-esque quest in any sense of reality doesn’t work, as the filmmakers push the graphic-novel styling. Jayson Rothwell’s screenplay doesn’t allow him to dig deep into exploring any hidden, nuanced facets. There’s just no room for subtlety in the type of movie that shows Lucas’ cartoonish character getting slathered with lotion, legs propped up in stirrups, on a gynecologist table in his mansion’s office. It’s foolish to think otherwise.
While the women of this world are given power positions within the narrative, they ultimately just serve to aid male protagonist and antagonist arcs. Not only does Camille’s journey begin and end with trauma, she’s relegated to damsel-in-distress status. Blut’s business manager, Vivian (Katheryn Winnick, whose magnetism bleeds through the screen), is a one-dimensional portrait of a femme fatale without much agency of her own. Same goes for Blut’s girlfriend and Duncan’s ace competitor, Hilde (Fei Ren). Tertiary characters also frustratingly disappoint — like the Belarusian prostitute (Anastasia Marinina), who lectures Duncan on empathy, and armory supplier Jasmine (Ayisha Issa), who plies him with guns and pines for his love. Yet the most offensive characterization is bouncy, sexy squad member Sindy (Ruby O. Fee), who weaponizes seduction to disarm her targets (replete with the catchphrase, “It’s blow time”). Mostly, her body is objectified by the camera’s sleazy male gaze. Later, she’s put in an uncomfortable position with an aggressive photographer, which plays like Åkerlund’s stomach-churning response to the #MeToo movement.
From the bank slips kept by Duncan’s accountant to the metal shard permanently lodged in Duncan’s side, foreshadowing and symbolism are clunky. Logic gets tossed out the window once Richard Dreyfuss shows up (singing karaoke, no less) as an older former Damocles hitman whom Duncan has befriended. How was he spared the same fate Duncan faces? If that’s not enough, pacing is problematic. It’s over an hour until the squad finds Duncan, another 40 minutes for him to face his double-crossing boss, and another 15 for the narrative to reach a thoroughly unsurprising conclusion. There are a few scenes that could stand to be chopped — like Duncan’s confounding “show and tell” with schoolchildren and the assassin squad’s visits to Duncan’s decoy properties.
Perhaps what’s worse is that the action sequences lack any sense of unique, bold creativity. They’re all reductive of better action films that came before. Duncan’s gunfight against Blut’s goons in a hallway pales in comparison to the hammer sequence in “Oldboy.” Duncan’s gloves that control Gatling guns recall the rig in “Shoot ’Em Up,” only without any humor to the bombast. These set pieces are serious and dry when they should be silly and slick.
Åkerlund, along with cinematographer Pär M. Ekberg, expands the color signature of the graphic novel’s minimalistic black, white, and dark orange palette, broadening it to an overly-saturated rainbow of colors. Instead of revering the graphic novel’s “less is more” philosophy, he prefers a “more is more” attitude. Whether it’s through the brassy, ostentatious costumes and makeup, or the quick cuts and shaky cam, they pile on the artifice thick. This technique possibly provides a sharp contrast to the grit, and a commentary on the dichotomous link between beauty and violence. Trouble is, there’s nothing beautiful about the aesthetic he’s created.