Review: Mads Mikkelsen Almost Saves Jonas Åkerlund’s Smug Polar

Jonas Åkerlund’s film gives viewers two well-worn assassin narratives for the price of one.

Photo: Jasper Savage/Netflix

Jonas Åkerlund’s Polar gives viewers two well-worn assassin narratives for the price of one. On their own terms, neither story is surprising, but together they lend Polar a maniacal energy, as the film shifts from gaudy to somber from scene to scene with the flip of a coin. The film suggests a cinematic mash-up of Kirk Wong’s The Big Hit and Anton Corbijn’s The American. Trashy stylistic orgies like the former aren’t taken as seriously as austere prestige vehicles like the latter, though both peddle familiar fantasies of the wandering male honoring his own code and doing whatever he likes. The Big Hit embraces its inherent lunacy, while The American courts the critics, wondering if there’s an Oscar nomination in sight. Meanwhile, Polar almost manages to have the best of both worlds, using a lurid carnival of sex and carnage to enliven a routine but occasionally touching redemption fable.

Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen) is a Hollywood specialty: a hit man approaching retirement, who is, of course, the greatest person in the world at his chosen field. The secret company that employs Duncan requires that all its killers retire at the age of 50, though it offers a handsome pension deal, which Duncan has utilized spectacularly to the tune of over eight million dollars. However, Blut (Matt Lucas), the boss of this organization, has decided that killing off his older employees is more profitable than paying them—a twist that suggests a resonant parody of how the American government screws people out of social security. Blut sets his sights on Duncan, predictably failing to account for the latter’s cleverness and invincibility.

Blut is a cartoonish evil Brit clad in loud suits that accentuate his pale skin and girth, while his gang of killers are visually defined by stereotypical fetish gear. Sindy (Ruby O. Fee) is a young honey pot, lowering the guard of her victims with her body, which Åkerlund never fails to memorialize in close-ups that rival the crassly unchained carnality of 1980s hair band videos. Hilde (Fei Ren) is an Asian femme fatale often clad in leather who’s romantically involved with Blut, and their relationship is defined by the way he hungrily gropes her buttocks. And so on. However, the men of this cabal are pointedly less distinctive—the usual collection of rippled muscles and shaved heads and burly beards, which suggest a form of masculinity that’s less evolved than that of Mikkelsen’s elegantly haunted Duncan.

Every character in Polar, save for Duncan and Camille (Vanessa Hudgens), the woman he must save, are solely objects of lustfulness or revulsion, and are played by the actors with a leering broadness that again recalls The Big Hit, or vigilante films of the 1960s and ’70s. Åkerlund doesn’t take this material seriously and is clearly amused by the bad taste of his exhilaratingly splintery, splattery, over-exposed, neon-drenched aesthetic—perhaps too amused. The film’s horniness and amorality, a slap in the face of fanatically cautious contemporary mores, might’ve been more shocking if it weren’t placed so firmly in quotation marks.

Polar’s other narrative centers on Duncan as he waits for Blut to catch up with him, hiding out in the wintry landscapes of Montana where he meets the traumatized Camille, watches movies, drinks, chops wood, and generally specializes in an erudite kind of photogenic masculine torment. It’s here that Polar transforms itself, from an adrenalized action film into a thriller in which the clichés arrive at a slower and more suggestive tempo. While there are a few authentically moving scenes in the film—such as what happens when Duncan attempts to adopt a dog—the draw here is Mikkelsen, who invests Duncan with a palpable regret and sadness that unifies Polar’s various strands, imbuing them with a weird urgency and integrity.

 Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Matt Lucas, Ruby O. Fee, Fei Ren, Anthony Grant, Josh Cruddas, Robert Maillet, Julian Richings, Johnny Knoxville, Richard Dreyfuss  Director: Jonas Åkerlund  Screenwriter: Jayson Rothwell  Distributor: Netflix  Running Time: 118 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2019

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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