In the times we now find ourselves, fans of comic book movies are spoilt for choice, with a significant portion of them thankfully giving fans an enjoyable experience as of late. There’s a sub-genre to the standard comic book adaptation, that of the graphic novel or Comic-Noir which routinely provides more adult fare. These are somewhat more difficult to nail down as a successful crossover to film, and studios tend not to lend as much enthusiasm to these projects as the audience will usually be more limited due to the niche nature and more graphic content which, in turn, does not fit within the requirements of the box office friendly PG-13 rating. In recent years we’ve seen film adaptations of this particular sub-gene, films such Sin City and Red which, coincidentally both starred Bruce Willis, and both of which fared well enough at the box office and both managing to score themselves sequels of unfortunately diminished quality.
However, it’s still a far from a secure bet for studios to back such risky projects. An obvious example would be 2012’s Dredd, which although solidly backed by a loyal fan base, was seen as something of a financial backfire and has struggled to convince the studio that it deserves the sequel that so many fans are crying out for, although persistent rumours of an upcoming Netflix miniseries do inspire optimism from its loyal fans.
Polar fits neatly into this sub-category and has all the essential and familiar plot points of its like-minded predecessors. The plot of Polar isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund and written by Jayson Rothwell, Polar tells the story of an elite organisation of hitmen (known as Damocles) who are forced to retire from active service when they reach fifty years old.
Duncan (Mads Mikkelsen) is 14 days from retirement and has been paying contributions to a pension fund of sorts throughout his career that will see him walk away with over $8 million, as have its other employees. The company’s boss, Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas) is not a man to be trusted and he subsequently sets about ordering his younger, fresher employees to start bumping off his outgoing Hitmen prior to their retirement so that he can claim the money for himself due to a clause written into their pensions. This dastardly plan is showcased during an opening scene featuring the assassination of a fellow outgoing employee played by Johnny Knoxville in a visually flashy scene reminiscent of another comic-noir movie adaptation, the James McAvoy/Angelina Jolie team-up, Wanted (2008).
Unaware of his impending fate, Duncan (who goes by the code name “The Black Kaiser”) has set about planning his post-retirement future in an undisclosed snowy town where he meets a young neighbour by the name of Camille (Vanessa Hugdens). Once Blut’s plan starts to unfold, Duncan finds himself not only fighting for his life but also needing to rescue Camille from the hands of his dastardly employer.
On paper Polar should have turned out to be a complete mess of a film. I will however, unashamedly admit that I had an absolute blast watching it.
Polar is everything a Netflix movie should be. Not to say that all their output should be as brutally visceral as Polar, but I do feel that their stock should provide a viable alternative to what’s available at the cinema and it always gives me cause to smile when something as refreshing as this comes along.
I’m of a certain age whereby can I recall all of the cinema worthy films that I saw in my youth and yet still hold some of those VHS rental store “finds” in equally high regard. The fact that this film, if made twenty or thirty something years ago, would fall into the latter category does nothing to diminish my enthusiasm for it whatsoever.
I’m unfamiliar with the Dark Horse Comics series that Polar is based on but this in no way diminished my admiration for what has been made here. To put it in its most basic terms, Polar seems to be the product of a studio meeting where they’d envisioned a more blood-thirsty and far out version of the original John Wick and somebody suddenly produced a pile of the original Polar graphic novels. In fact (SPOILER ALERT), in Polar the protagonist’s dog not only gets killed, it’s actually him that pulls the trigger! Twice! More than once the phrase “John Wick on coke” popped into my mind while I watched Polar.
There are certain concessions that you have to make if you’re going to enjoy a film like Polar, much like the aforementioned John Wick. One has to allow themselves to become immersed in the world that’s presented to us. A world of over the top assassins, who all appear to be more far out and wired than their more seasoned, outgoing counterparts. Polar exists in a world that resembles a comic book more than it does reality, but somehow seems to counter that by having these larger than life characters operate in otherwise fairly mundane settings.
In short, nothing about Polar should work and yet somehow it does. We have a lead character surviving multiple situations that would kill a mere mortal whilst continuing steadfast on a mission to not only save a stranger from an absurdly OTT villain (Lucas), that quite frankly appears to be the product of a bizarre, failed Elton John tribute act, whilst he also attempts to gain redemption for a lifetime of sins. Our lead is not a man who we should be rooting for, and yet throughout the entire blood-soaked duration of the film, I found myself punching the air with delight as each wince inducing kill exploded on the screen.
It’s not often that a protagonist is presented in such an immoral fashion yet somehow comes across in a way that makes you want him to succeed. Throughout the film he is constantly being “upgraded” to become more of a badass, and by the time we reach the point of him having to don an eye patch, it’s clear that every attention to detail has been paid in turning him from an icy cool yet anonymous killer into a battle scarred warrior.
Mikkelsen (also a producer) fully embraces the part and fits perfectly into the shoes of this dark anti-hero. A clearly talented and well rounded performer whose credentials I don’t need to lay out here, it’s nice to see him putting a fresh spin on such a role, whilst still providing the requisite air of cold and extremely capable menace that he has so often brought to previous characters he’s played.
Polar is an often absurdly camp but consistently engaging, blood splattered explosion on the small screen and actually benefits from the platform of its release as I found myself skipping back to rewatch its corridor fight scene which surely equals, if not betters, its similar comparatives such as Chan-Wook Park’s Old Boy (2003) and the brilliant “one take” hallway battle of Daredevil Season 1 (2015). Polar is a film that’s unrelentingly but also unashamedly brutal and wears such credentials with pride especially during a particularly brutal and sustained torture scene.
As my good friend and Film ‘89 Podcast co-host, Jim Cottle so rightly summed up when I asked if he enjoyed Polar,
“It’s nothing that I’ve not seen before but, I couldn’t stop watching it.”
He followed that up with,
“It’s as if Roald Dahl made a hitman movie.”
I couldn’t agree more Jim.
Films like Polar draw immediate comparison to other recent entries in the aforementioned sub-genre, in particular both of the very successful John Wick films. As someone who, to a degree, enjoyed both Wick films, I’ll happily go as far as to say that even though it has probably too much of an abundance of elements that are garishly absurd and a level of violence and nudity that skirts the line of gratuitous, it’s grounded by a serious and solid central performance, some assured direction, and a wonderfully open and ambiguous ending that left me salivating at the prospect of a sequel. The action is always well choreographed and never feels overly enhanced or numbingly repetitive – something that John Wick 2 was very much guilty of – and therefore is a film that feels far more carefully measured than the almost throwaway entertainment provided by John Wick and it’s sequel.
Netflix has received much undue criticism for some of its output of late but if it keeps satisfying the need held by many for bold, unflinching genre entertainment that’s as well made as Polar then they’ll have my continued and loyal support.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 7/10
Polar is available now on Netflix (regional variances apply).