Self-indulgent doesn’t even begin to describe Polar, a slice of vaguely self-aware action dreck that seems intent on flipping off any and all potential viewers. Apart from some genuine bafflement, there’s very little enjoyment to be found in this over-saturated, incompetently filmed nightmare of stolen action movie tropes and willfully garish imagery.
The film announces itself as such from the very first scene: Johnny Knoxville strutting around the backyard of a mansion, snorting cocaine off a woman’s breast, and huffing through bench-presses while harboring an erection. This bizarre opener, set to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September,” is edited and shot to look like a porno, even as a team of ridiculously-dressed hitmen slowly creep up to the property and begin firing at the excited man and his mistress. CGI bullets rip through the air as we’re introduced to each of these generic characters with freeze-frame title cards that put the cartoonish action on hold. After the job is completed, we catch up with our hero far off in his gloomy Seattle home.
Mads Mikkelsen stars as John Wick—I mean, Duncan Vizla, a brooding ex-hitman who, in anticipation of his retirement pension, spends his days wallowing in agony over his dark past in a remote cabin in Montana. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that the folks over at Damocles (his employer, a company of hitmen) would rather keep the money they owe him and every other aging former employee. Like all the great action movies, Polar taps into the knotty issue of the baby boomer pension crisis.
Mr. Blut (Matt Louis), the plump, overblown leader of this cohort of killers, assembles an appropriately goofy ensemble of hitmen that look and act as though they’ve been plucked straight out of the circus. They set out to kill the aging killer, all the while Vizla comes to befriend a vulnerable, lonely neighbor named Camille (Vanessa Hudgens), and really, what kind of B-grade action movie would this be without the token damsel in distress?
Among other things, this project seems particularly indebted to John Wick, and as such, it fails almost entirely. Whereas Wick works because of its exceptional mixture of pathos, sophisticated self-awareness, inventive world building, and dynamic action choreography, the best Polar can muster is a goofier, maximalist brand of self-aware vulgarity that only comes across as prodding, as if it’s daring you to hate it. In that way, the film is decidedly cynical, shamelessly indulging in both sexual and gory obscenity, while implicitly excusing itself on the basis of its own knowingness—almost as if the filmmakers watched a few Tarantino movies and thought they understood what he was doing.
The director, Jonas Akerlund, is a Swedish filmmaker best known for his music videos, which likely accounts for the film’s gaudy visuals, most of which are either objectifying woman, glorifying violence, or achieving both at once. Besides the oversaturated, high-contrast images often captured in slow-motion, the film feels cheaply made—digital cinematography hasn’t looked this bad in a long time. Even on a scene-to-scene basis, the visuals aren’t consistent, as if nobody bothered to color correct this thing before putting it out. Making matters worse, Akerlund employs drone footage throughout the film that helps maintain the unseemly look of things. At one point, Vanessa Hudgens looks directly at the drone as it flies off into the distance, and surely, this was not the kind of intended self-referentiality the filmmakers were going for.
The action in Polar is expectedly dire and unsurprisingly can’t compare to that of Wick or any of the countless other action movies it’s borrowing from. Dressed in a fine black suit and accompanied by the appropriately trimmed facial hair, Mikkelsen looks the part, but it’s the film’s tonal incoherence, oscillating between goofy indulgence and serious contemplation, that makes watching it unbearable. A scene during which Vizla takes an electric drill to a thug’s skull (graphically depicted, for those so inclined) is followed soon after by a bleak discussion between our protagonist and Camille about past trauma and sexual abuse. Frankly, sincerity of this kind can’t survive in a movie as ugly as this.
Featured Image by Netflix