Review: ‘Polar’ is a toxic brew of mindless violence that shows Netflix can go low too
Netflix serving up the ultra-violent vengeance slog “Polar” the same week it scored triumphant “Roma” Oscar nominations is like being reminded that even your favorite mall is likely to offer both a boutique shop and an unclean restroom.
Ostensibly adapted from a graphic novel, but primarily feeling like something oozing from a rusted tin, “Polar” stars a mustachioed Mads Mikkelsen as a grizzled cutthroat hanging up his weapons but pulled into – let’s say it together now – one last job. If only assassin movies as a genre were closing up shop with only one more of them left, in which case, I’ll take that upcoming third “John Wick” and pretend “Polar” — its grisly nastiness like a case of toxic flatulence — never happened.
I feel bad even mentioning the brazenly enjoyable, slickly beautiful “John Wick” movies in an assessment of “Polar,” but the latter’s existence is not unlike acknowledging the reality that one skillful skateboarder’s breathtaking stunt video will invariably portend footage of a lesser imitator wiping out. Only “Polar” — directed by Jonas Åkerlund as if the takeaway from “John Wick” weren’t skillful choreography but mindless wreckage — inspires no sympathy for the attempt.
The least of its crimes is tarnishing Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” in a splat of an opening that vainly tries to establish bloody/raunchy bona fides with a hit squad’s tactical assault on a swanky Chilean compound, where soon-to-retire hit man Michael (Johnny Knoxville) is living it up poolside with a squealing, scantily clad companion (Ruby O. Fee). The only appealing aspect to this unpleasurable sequence, the first of many, is that at least Knoxville’s role is a cameo.
The job, it turns out, is at the behest of the squad’s and victim’s mutual employer, an organization called Damocles, and its cruel, hand lotion-addicted Weeble of a CEO Mr. Blut (an unfunny Matt Lucas), who requires his assassins to retire at 50 but would rather kill them first, just before that birthday, and keep the hefty pension payout.
Naturally, this doesn’t work on the outfit’s star employee, contract killer extraordinaire Duncan (Mikkelsen), two weeks from an $8-million goodbye check, wise to his boss’ betrayal scheme, and believing he’s safe hiding out in the snowy wilds of rural Montana.
While Duncan takes kindly to a lonely cabin neighbor (Vanessa Hudgens) with a tragic past – the movie’s “sensitive” side, because Hudgens mostly displays tear-streaked eyes – Mr. Blut’s slaughter-crazed team hunts down Duncan’s whereabouts so Åkerlund can turn perviness and sadism into pop-colored punchlines. Were we supposed to laugh when the crew had such a hard time throttling the morbidly obese guy they fired a thousand rounds into his midsection?
Eventually, after Duncan is located, the vengeance plot kicks into high gear, leading to the expected torture sequence and one of those increasingly common hallway gauntlets where Mikkelsen fends off dozens of black-clad soldiers with head-shot accuracy, our CGI-spatter era’s version of custard pie fights of yore. (Yawn.)
As for the Danish star’s involvement, his singular presence – a solemn machismo fusing Robert Shaw’s grit and Lee Van Cleef’s menace – is comforting, but is the only reason he signed on to dreck like this because he knows he’ll come out with his screen magnetism intact?
Poor Katheryn Winnick, on the other hand, as Mr. Blut’s assassin point person, can barely find the fatale-ish gravitas in screenwriter Jayson Rothwell’s insipid dialogue to justify Åkerlund’s penchant for shooting her in noir-ish close-ups that accentuate her red lips, redder nail polish and glamorous features.
“Polar” doesn’t only have “John Wick” on its mind. The dully stylized, jokey carnage is also clearly Åkerlund’s play to join the same twisted-pulp, laugh-while-you-gag club frequented by Matthew Vaughn (“Kick Ass,” “Kingsman”), James Gunn (“Super”) and David Ayers (“Suicide Squad”). Too bad the only thrill you get from all the bloodletting is that you know each cartoony death brings you that much closer to the end credits.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
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