Polar Review: An Empty Exercise in 90s-era Edge

Mads Mikkelsen shoots, bangs and bores in this cheap, over-stylized comic book adaptation.

In 2018, Netflix purchased the rights to more than 700 original TV shows and movies, much of it to bulk up their ever-diminishing selection of streaming content. While some of it, such as director Mike Flanagan’s take on The Haunting of Hill House, took off and found devoted audiences, much of it was unceremoniously thrown into the line-up without so much as a single promotion. They seemed particularly random and unselective when it came to movies, and it became a bit of a joke: was there anything Netflix wouldn’t buy?

After watching Polar, I feel qualified to answer this question: no, there isn’t anything Netflix wouldn’t buy.

Since it’s only January, it may be a bit premature to call Polar the worst movie of 2019, but any future contenders are going to have to work extremely hard to get down to its level. Based on a comic book series that I’ve never heard of—and have no interest in seeking out after watching this—it’s a loving to the point of fellating homage to the hyperstylized “all flash no substance” crime movies of the 90s. What’s that? You don’t have any fond remembrance for those movies? Well, too bad, asshole, director Jonas
Åkerlund
and screenwriter Jayson Rothwell do, and together they manage to squeeze in every last insufferable trope and stereotype from them. It takes real effort to make something this aggressively unpleasant, and by God, they managed to do it.

Everything you need to know about what decade this movie exists in is revealed in the opening sequence, which features a “special guest appearance” by Johnny Knoxville. Wow, Johnny Knoxville?!? How did they ever manage to pull him away from—wait, what? He hasn’t been in a movie that’s gotten theatrical release since 2014? Well, whatever, dude, it’s Johnny Knoxville! And we get to see him receive oral sex from a female character whose buttocks are shown in no less than six (6) tight close-ups in the first five minutes alone (there’s more than twenty butt shots total, the only thing the filmmakers like more than asses is guns). That woman is Sindy (Ruby O. Fee), who works with a team of assassins. Her primary role on the team is—I’m not kidding—wearing skimpy club kid clothes and, ahem, distracting targets with her mouth while another member of the team takes them out at long range.

Cindy and the rest of the team are traveling around the world murdering older, retired assassins, under the orders of Blut (Matt Lucas), for reasons that have to do with insurance liability and are dumb and don’t matter. The final target is Duncan Vizla, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who appears to have swallowed half a bottle of NyQuil before arriving on set every day. You’ve never seen anyone sleepwalk through a performance the way Mikkelsen does here. He can’t even be bothered to look alive when having athletic sex with women half his age, and it’s both fascinating and a little unsettling to watch.

When not making short trips to Croatia to shoot a man in the crotch with a nail gun and then run a power drill into his forehead, Vizla lives in a quaint cabin in Montana, where he befriends his neighbor, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens), a shy, troubled young…woman? Teenager? Hudgens looks like she could be anywhere between 18 and 30, and it makes her interactions with Mikkelsen murky and uncomfortable. It’s likely supposed to be reminiscent of The Professional, one of several 90s-early 00s action-crime-dramas the filmmakers chewed up and shat out to make this, with the extra added tease of “maybe they’ll fuck at some point” (they don’t, incredibly, which is the only time this movie exercises any restraint).

I’d explain more about the plot, but that’s really all there is, as we build up to the assassins catching up with Vizla. Somehow it’s stretched out to a punishing almost two hours long, and plot doesn’t matter anyway. Akerlund and Rothwell know what you want, and that’s repetitive violence (if you love seeing people get shot in the head, you’re in for a real treat), shaky camera work, scantily clad women getting slapped around and gruesomely murdered, a nearly ten minute long montage of Vizla being tortured that’s filmed in glistening, pornographic detail, and Richard Dreyfuss, in an inexplicable minor role. But say what you will, at least he and Matt Lucas, who comes on like he’s playing a Batman villain, look like they’re having some fun, which can’t be said for the rest of the cast, let alone the viewer.

Save for Dreyfuss and Lucas, there’s not a single redeeming quality in Polar. Not one. This is a movie that’s so up its own ass and pleased with itself that, even after the inevitable showdown between hero and Final Boss (an encounter which doesn’t even take place onscreen), there’s still another fifteen minutes to go, for a melodramatic, tragic twist that is so unearned it borders on offensive. The only thing Polar does worse than drama is comedy, as exhibited in a scene where the assassin team empties their entire arsenal into a shrieking obese man (who’s both bearded and wearing eye makeup, for some reason), shooting extra-large soda cups and bowls of cheese curls in the process. The dead man then lets out a long fart, which sums up what the filmmakers think of their audience. 

Everything looks fake and ugly, from the CGI blood to the obvious press-on nails Blut’s henchwoman wears to Hudgens’ godawful “I cut my own hair with pinking shears” wig. Akerlund directed some of the most iconic music videos of the past 25 years, including The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” and Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” but none of that craftsmanship is present here. This is bush league straight to DVD and never spoken about again direction, but it’s nothing compared to the incompetent screenplay, which introduces characters who seem like they might have some relevance to the plot and then never mentions them again, has other characters say “fuck” a lot instead of giving them discernible personalities, and pads out the already overlong running time with pointless flashbacks.

I’m sure Polar will have its defenders, those who insist that it’s self-aware, deliberately over the top, a satire of Tarantino rip-offs like 2 Days in the Valley and The Boondock Saints. But, honestly, even if that was the case, does a movie most people are now embarrassed to say they liked when they were in college need a smug, winking take on it, twenty years later? Can you really satirize a movie that was practically a satire of itself? And anyway, haven’t we had enough of “bad on purpose”? Let’s make 2019 the year we stop giving filmmakers a pass for intentionally making a bad movie as some muddled statement about art and the film industry and call it for what it is—a waste of money, and worse, a waste of time.

Polar Trailer
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