There's something delightfully regressive about the first half or so of Polar, debuting on Netflix this Friday. Unrepentantly violent and unapologetically sexual (and sexy), Polar is happy to rely on cardboard cutouts prancing about in absurd costuming in lieu of characterization and seems charmingly unconcerned with just how distasteful the proceedings are. Unfortunately, director Jonas Akerlund and writer Jayson Rothwell ditch this madcap mode as the film reaches its climax, retreating to an oddly maudlin mood that feels slightly out of step with the rest of the movie.
Assassin dispatcher Blut (Matt Lucas) is trying to balance his company's books by eliminating his retirees: once they turn 50, his hitmen are sent out to pasture. But if they die before hitting the half-centenary, their retirement funds return to the company. Michael Green (Johnny Knoxville) is one such near-retiree; he's taken out by a squad of killers in Polar‘s opening vignette.
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Seduced into distraction by Sindy (Ruby O. Fee) before being gunned down by Hilde (Fei Ren), Facundo (Anthony Grant), and Alexei (Josh Cruddas), Green's fate quickly and cleanly sets the stakes. Everyone in this opening portion is absurd—Sindy flouncing around in a barely-there bikini while Facundo sets up a sniper rifle and the eyebrow-less, leather-bound Hilde sneaks up from the side—as is the brief bit of gunplay that follows. We're not dealing with real characters so much as caricatures; that Polar is based on a comic book is no surprise after watching this play out.
Blut's main target in Polar is Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen), nearing 50 and due more than $8 million upon retirement. Vizla is better known as the Black Kaiser; he's the John Wick of this universe, a killer's killer, a real pro. Perhaps knowing that Wick is the immediate comparison, Akerlund and Rothwell gift him a doggie in the earlygoing; its fate, I presume, is intended to demonstrate that this is a different kind of assassin-v-assassin movie.
Of course, it's not, not really. Polar fits in nicely with a whole host of similar pictures: John Wick 2, Smokin' Aces, Hotel Artemis, et cetera, movies in which odd and flamboyant killers murder each other in vaguely absurd ways. By couching the action in this overtly theatrical and comic style, filmmakers earn some immunity from critics by playing up the ultraviolence for laughs. Vizla kills some silly-looking people—a big fat Mexican gangster living it up in a Belarussian hotel with his entourage—and some silly-looking people (the gang that took out Green) kill yet more silly-looking people in the course of hunting for Vizla … it's all well and good and over-the-top.
Where Polar runs into trouble is when Vizla tries to settle down and retire in rural Montana. He strikes up a relationship with Camille (Vanessa Hudgens), a local girl who is just a bit off: a victim of abuse running from something in her past, twitchy and nervous and not yet ready to take back her agency. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that her presence both drags down the film a bit toward the end and nicely sets up a potential sequel.
Mikkelsen is charmingly vicious as Vizla, his dead shark eyes conveying the soul-destroying weariness that accompanies a life of mass murder. And few do deadpan as well as Mikkelsen; a scene in which he describes the bodily mechanics of decomposition and death to a group of kids as part of a classroom presentation is giggle-out-loud funny. As much as I don't particularly care for Hudgens's character, Hudgens herself is well cast: dark eyed and twitchy, this is a far cry from High School Musical, or even Spring Breakers. And should we be blessed with Polar 2 with Camille in a sidekick/mentee role, we already know she can handle the physicality such a production would require, given her performance as Blondie in the cult classic Sucker Punch.