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Non-Review Review: Polar

At the heart of Polar is a vaguely interesting idea.

The basic premise of Polar filters an archetypal masculine midlife (or retirement) anxiety through the prism of a hyper-violent fantasia. It is almost a cliché to suggest that certain types of men revert to boys when confronted with their own mortality, but only because it permeates popular culture that treats middle age as a relapsed adolescence reflected in the shiny toys that such men buy and the selfish decisions that such men make. Polar just takes that central metaphor and runs with it.

The assassin who came in from the cold.

Even beyond that basic concept, there’s something potentially compelling in the premise of an assassination-themed black comedy that hinges on what amounts to a pension swindle. It’s hyper-capitalism run wild, the commodification of human life to the point that workers are literally killing one another to prevent the company from having to make a pay-out. The Other Guys managed that deft balance with ease and grace. On some strange level, it’s fun to imagine a hyper-violent assassination thriller rooted in something as mundane as balance sheets, mergers and annual reports.

Unfortunately, Polar is a disaster of a film. It just doesn’t work. More than that, the ways in which it doesn’t work are painfully and predictably mundane. It’s leery, voyeuristic and trashy, but not in any fun way. It has a weird anal fixation that most obviously manifests itself in those sleazy tight close-ups of female derrieres, but which has a slight equal opportunity air to it; audiences are also treated to a number of shots of Mads Mikkelsson’s ass as he thrusts into his female co-stars, and the film opens with Mikkelsson receiving a prostate exam that might serve as a metaphor for the store film.

Not a patch on John Wick.

At the most basic of levels, Polar is simply mean, obnoxious and nasty. There is nothing inherently wrong with these adjectives, when married to some purpose or vision. Team America: World Police is a spectacularly vulgar movie that is also one of the best comedies of the twenty-first century. The issue with Polar is not just that the film is crass and vulgar, it is that it is very little else beyond crass and vulgar. They elements exist entirely of themselves, never in service of anything meaningful. These aspects of the film do not even exist in service of giving the audience a good time. They just are.

Polar is aneither smart-nor-stylish enough to justify this nastiness. The film comes with a host of over-exaggerated stylistic flourishes – introducing each cast member in a garish font, occasionally offering split screen to emulate a comic book panel – but without blending those elements into a cohesive identity. This lack of a strong central identity is compounded by an unearned smugness. At one point, which is surprisingly infuriating given the film’s other excesses, it subtitles “sante” as “sante.”

A shot in the dark.

More than that, Polar completely wastes the talents of Mads Mikkelsen. The Danish character actor seems like a reasonable choice for what should be a fairly standard John Wick knock-off, the story of a retired (or retiring) assassin who finds himself pulled back into a cartoonish underworld despite his own weariness. Mikkelsen excels at portraying a grizzled weariness, albeit without the boy scout qualities that make Keanu Reeves’ hitman protagonist somebody to root for. Mikkelsen has a much colder, icier demeanour that makes him a much more interesting central figure for a story like this.

However, Polar squanders Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen’s inscrutable demeanour can be used for great effect in a story like this; Hannibal featured the character actor playing a disconnected sociopath as an emotional mad scientist, less interested in people than on the impact of his psychological experiments upon them. Polar teases the idea of Mikkelsen playing a hitman approaching retirement who is not so much ashamed of or haunted by as his past misdeeds as simply worn down by them. Unfortunately, the film never provides enough emotional weight to suggest depth beneath its protagonist’s cold exterior.

A sight for at least one sore eye.

This issue is compounded by a supporting cast who cannot act. There is a distracting amount of ADR in the film, and it often seems like none of the dialogue in the film was actually delivered during the scenes being shot. The dialogue always feels removed from what is being portrayed on screen. Many cast members seeming to read cue cards in neutral affected accents. This may be a stylistic choice – the obvious comparison is with the delivery of dialogue in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. However, that sort of approach requires a level of skill and talent simply not on display in Polar.

There’s also a strange cheapness to the whole thing, outside of the casting of recognisable names like Mads Mikkelsson and Vanessa Hudgens. For a film based on a black-and-white comic, Polar is suffocatingly gaudy. This is most obvious with Matt Lucas’ character, who wears bright red costumes, but none of which seem to have been properly tailored to him. He looks like a bargain-basement crime boss rather than the tacky CEO that the movie wants him to be. Indeed, Lucas’ casting itself acknowledges the film’s status as a low-tier John Wick knock-off, Lucas presented as a bargain basement Ian McShane.

Bullet time.

Even beyond that, Polar is also interminable. It just keeps going. Not because there’s more story to tell, but instead because it treats the two hour runtime as a target. Ironically, given its commitment to this, Polar feels much longer. Much, much longer. If you’ve ever wondered what a Netflix January movie looks like… well, here we are.

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