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-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, EUROPEAN CINEMA, German Cinema, NORTH AMERICAN CINEMA

‘Polar’ (2019): A Lowbrow “John Wick”

Directed by: Jonas Akerlund || Produced by: Robert Kulzer, Mike Richardson, Keith Goldberg, Jeremy Bolt, Hartley Gorenstein

Screenplay by: Jayson Rothwell || Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Matt Lucas

Music by: Deadmau5 || Cinematography: Pär M. Ekberg || Edited by: Doobie White || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 119 minutes

In my quest to watch every violent action movie exclusive to or popularized by Netflix, no matter how lowbrow or obscure, I filled my personal queue with small to moderate-budgeted action flicks of every possible national origin soon after I signed up. Some of those flicks were disappointments (e.g. The Crew [2015]), while others were OK (e.g. Lost Bullet [2020], Code 8 [2019], Spectral [2016]) and some even kicked ass (e.g. The Night Comes for Us [2018], Extraction [2020]). Most of those features paid homage to either John Wick (2014, 2017, 2019) or The Raid (2011, 2014) in some way, whose stylistic influences have pleased me even when executed by lesser filmmakers.

Top: Josh Cruddas (left), Fei Ren (center), and Ruby O. Fee (right) eliminate their first of many targets in Polar’s opening scene. Bottom: Vanessa Hudgens (left) spends time with Mads Mikkelsen (right).

A good example of an ambitious yet highly, highly imperfect descendant of the breakout works of Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, and Gareth Evans is Jonas Åkerlund’s Polar, based on the dialogue-free webcomic of the same name and starring Danish actor extraordinaire, Mads Mikkelsen. Best known for his work with fellow Dane, Nicolas Winding Refn (see the Pusher [1999, 2004] films and Valhalla Rising [2009]), as well as playing the principle antagonists of Casino Royale (2006) and Doctor Strange (2016), Mikkelsen’s professionalism and brooding demeanor elevate much of Polar’s grimy, grungy, pulpy aesthetic, and contrast well with Åkerlund’s command of action-direction and penchant for loud, self-reflexive editing. Much of what ruins the film for many critics, I discern, is its inconsistent narrative structure, excessive running time, and lackluster pacing. Put another way, I have not seen an action film with such striking weaknesses and strengths in quite some time.

Let us start with the good: The film’s stylized intertitles, subtitles, and New Wave-style editing recall everything from Deadpool (2016) to John Wick to Looney Tunes (1930-1969), and give the film a unique flavor that differentiates it from less imaginative B-movies. The action set-pieces take inspiration from numerous aforementioned recent titles, though their final execution stands apart and doesn’t rip off those obvious influences. Most action-scenes are defined by tight choreography and quick cuts against medium to wide-shots, so the cinematic violence feels like a hybrid between the contemporary “gun-fu” action popularized by Stahelski and Leitch and the hyperactive cinematography of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films (2004, 2007, 2016). This dynamic action style fits with the movie’s theatrical, motion-comic tone, no doubt a function of director Åkerlund’s background in concert documentaries and music videos.

Other strengths of Polar have to do with its fun cast and charismatic lead. Mikkelsen is stoic yet likable as the poker faced “Black Kaiser,” an aging hitman who feels like an archetypal “straight man” relative to the supporting cast’s collection of twisted goons, black comic relief, and gleeful, mustache-twirling villains. His relationship with female lead, Vanessa Hudgens, has some heart to it, and allows for a fun sequence where Mikkelson shows a classroom of elementary school children how to kill people with a khukuri. Much of the criticism surrounding this film seems to focus on the clash between Mikkelsen and Hudgens’ more realistic characters and the movie’s over-the-top, cartoonish violence, but for me, the dynamic worked and I cared enough about their characters for the movie’s plot to function.

Speaking of that plot, Polar’s biggest problems have to do with its excessive length and inconsistent pacing. The story is 10-15 minutes longer than it needs to be at almost two hours (~119 minutes) in length, while Mikkelson’s vengeful rampage against the forces of primary antagonist, Matt Lucas, runs out of steam following the former’s action-packed escape from a bloody torture-dungeon. Matters are made worse by the plot’s continual reliance on throwaway side characters (e.g. Richard Dreyfus, Ayisha Issa) whose impact on the leads is short-lived and their roles in the overall story, contrived. I was perhaps most frustrated by the premature dismissal of whom I thought were Polar’s main threats to Mikkelson — a goofy troupe of henchmen under the command of Lucas (Ruby O. Fee, Anthony Grant, Robert Maillet, Fei Ren) who chew the scenery at every turn — but are killed off a little after the halfway mark in an admittedly fun action sequence.

Put another way, Polar could’ve been salvaged and its worst criticisms, undercut, if screenwriter Jayson Rothwell had committed to another draft or recruited additional help to bolster the screenplay. The movie, as it stands, is a stylized, well shot, yet crude neo-noir amalgamation of a messy script that runs out of ideas by the end of its second act. Removing a few superfluous scenes throughout and rewriting the entire third act might have transformed this picture into something much greater than a lowbrow, almost Suicide Squad (2016) version of John Wick.

Mikkelsen shoots down his enemies with high tech weaponry.

For my part, Polar is worth a watch if you consider yourself a fan of violent action movies, exploitation cinema, and contemporary neo-noir visuals in the vein of Chad Stahelski’s John Wick, David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017), or the Wachowskis’ Matrix (1999). You should stay far, far away, however, if the hardcore violence and gore of The Raid frightens you, or if cornball, exaggerated characters a la Escape from New York (1981) annoy you. Most audiences outside genre enthusiasts will have little patience for Polar’s otherwise impressive style and memorable action-direction when its characterizations are so bizarre and its story such a mixed bag. I applaud lead Mads Mikkelsen’s consummate dedication to this project, as well as director Jonas Akerlunds’ appreciation for striking visuals and a charismatic soundtrack, but am also disappointed at how many sloppy errors the film commits despite all that.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Violent, seedy, and unapologetic, Polar’s aggressive, flamboyant style calls attention to itself in every aspect from its credits to its action sequences to its costume design. Its extreme gore is matched only by its characters’ unabashed loyalty to their comic origins, which will either win you over or turn you off within minutes. If nothing else, Mads Mikkelsen’s highbrow demeanor and understated lead performance are worth a watch given the actor’s impressive physicality and subtle range.

However… the movie’s story feels like a first or second draft of a screenplay, not a final composition ready for the screen. Too many side characters are pointless and the final act is a mess of truncated set-pieces and incoherent plot holes. The movie also runs too long and has major pacing issues toward the end.

—> ON THE FENCE: Polar feels like a European or independent American knockoff of John Wick, akin to the 1980s Italian ripoffs of Mad Max (1979) and John Carpenter movies, only with a decent budget. Whether that’s worth a casual watch on your Netflix queue is difficult to decide unless you understand your tastes in genre cinema.

? The khukuri is an arterial weapon, perfect for slicing through flesh, but it sucks at… stabbing!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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