Ah, the hitman-centric action/comedy. It’s a typically reliable sub-genre with some real standouts in the likes of Grosse Point Blank (1997), In Bruges (2008), and The Matador (2005), but even lesser entries can make for passable entertainment with the right balance of laughs and carnage. Jonas Åkerlund‘s latest film, Polar, succeeds at being passable entertainment. But it’s close.
Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen), aka The Black Kaiser, is a master assassin with a respectable career in the killing fields behind him, but as he approaches mandatory retirement age he’s looking forward to relaxing in his remote cabin in the snowy Northern woods. The expected payout from his company’s internal 401k program is substantial, though, and rather than take the financial hit his boss Blut (Matt Lucas) instead puts a hit out on Duncan. He’s done it before and saved the company millions of dollars in the process, but Duncan isn’t about to roll over that easy. With a squad of young upstart assassins on his trail and a young woman named Camille (Vanessa Hudgens) caught in the crossfire, Duncan strips down, straps one (or two) on, and brings the fight to them.
Polar is adapted from Victor Santos’ graphic novel of the same name, and its comic book origins are clear throughout. It never goes the comic book panel route, but Akerlund, cinematographer Pär M. Ekberg, and production designer Emma Fairley ensure every frame every frame pops with color, action, and/or movement. It’s a loud, busy movie for the ears and eyes with audible screen wipes, noisy flashbacks, and the like hitting your senses every few minutes. It’s a lot. Polar is a lot.
Much of the film feels almost like two different movies — one with Mikkelsen and one without — and you get a single guess as to which is the most appealing and entertaining. It’s the part with Mikkelsen, obviously, as he’s having an absolute blast with the material and throws himself fully into the performance and action. He’s the best kind of movie killer as he’s talented, smart, mean, and wraps it all up in a dry sense of humor. He’s also not shy about the sexy time which leads to one of the film’s standout sequences as a naked Duncan goes to town on an equally bare and willing woman who he doesn’t know is there to kill him. Their montage plays for a while before the gun-toting baddies interrupt forcing a nude Mikkelsen to go all Viggo Mortensen on their asses. It’s a fun, violent, well-crafted scene playing every bit towards fans of Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) and Smokin’ Aces (2006).
The cartoonish and comical vibe carries through much of the film, but while it works best with Mikkelsen on the screen it doesn’t work at all when he’s not. Chunks of the film focus instead on the young assassin squad killing random people in their hunt for Duncan, and they’re all so damn over the top as to be utterly boring. The sequences are violent and bloody but dull. Instead it’s Mikkelsen’s time — whether killing baddies or reading books on how to cook or care for a new dog (don’t worry, you won’t have time to get attached to it) — that puts a smile on your face. An absurd sequence where he showcases his skills at a local grade school by demonstrating his knife work on a small child is pretty priceless. The others don’t fare nearly as well, though, with Hudgens stuck in a fairly thankless role as “Hero Motivation” and Lucas overdoing his disgusting boss villain at every turn. That last bit spills over into a torture sequence that goes on for an unnecessarily long time and well past the point of dramatic thrills.
There’s an overall sense of sloppy crassness to much of the film that makes it feel as if it’s aimed squarely at pre-teen boys and non-discerning viewers, and it’s severely lacking in smarts or wit. Åkerlund shows both in his previous film, Lords of Chaos (2018), but neither is evident here. The action is passable fun, the characters are obvious, and the humor is destined to divide viewers, but the one constant — and the one reason the film is still worth a watch — is the sight of a smiling, one-eyed Mikkelsen dispatching those who cross him by any means available. If that doesn’t get your motor running then nothing else here stands a chance.