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Review: POLAR (2019)

While watching Netflix, the end credits (done in what I’m starting to assume is his signature style) cuffed me over the head again, in a more efficient blow than what I’d just seen in Jonas Åkerlund’s new film, POLAR. Jonas Åkerlund directed?? But I’d only just finished seeing his latest, LORDS OF CHAOS! Needless to say, I don’t know how I hadn’t been paying attention, As I recalled the movie, everything spoke to his particular style-the visceral quality which he executed his gore effects, most definitely no CG blood here, and the cold tones and lighting with which he pursued his shots. And some killer nightmare sequences that didn’t dampen the overall tone of the movie, but perhaps were more vital to the story than they were as a storytelling tool in LORDS OF CHAOS.

Here’s the thing about POLAR, directed by Åkerlund and starring Mads Mikkelsen (VALHALLA RISING, HANNIBAL) and Vanessa Hudgens (DOG DAYS). It’s beautifully shot, perfectly cast, painstakingly written… and while you think that unnecessary background is being given, the real story is going down.

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In the movie Polar, a man named Duncan Vizla (MIKKELSEN), is a hitman named “The Black Kaiser”. His fiftieth birthday approaches, and he’s ready to retire, as his company requires that their employees (hitmen) retire at age 50. He no longer wants to accept any work. Meanwhile, his boss, Mr. Blut (MATT LUCAS, ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS) is fudging numbers and sitting down with potential buyers of his assassination company, Damocles. Mr. Blut determines that if he can ensure that his employees have all died in the line of duty or in an accident before the age of 50, he can redirect their paid-out pensions, which are substantial, back to his own pocket. This inflates the worth of his own company, making him able to sell.

The premise isn’t too convoluted, and the name of the company, Damocles, is apt. I guess the story is important to establish right away, because “a hitman who wants to retire but no one will let him” sounds an awful lot like JOHN WICK, starring Keanu Reeves. And there are so many reasons why POLAR is not JOHN WICK.

Duncan rebels against Damocles and decides to get away on his own terms, to live his own life. Seemingly almost at random, except for a few minor details, he chooses to get away to the country to live in a cabin near Triple Oak, Montana, still haunted by his own past and nightmares from what we assume is one of his worst assignments. A mysterious young woman is his neighbour across the lake, and he is incredibly nice to her, ingratiating himself to her in an awkward way that only a nearly-retired assassin with no family could do.

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And the only problem I have with the movie here is that Duncan kind of lets the action come to him. A specific squad of assassins from Damocles tracks Duncan to his last known location so that they can kill him. Seems simple enough, but Duncan has covered his tracks well, and it is a while before they catch up with him. In the meantime, he strikes up a friendship with his young woman neighbour and learns a little bit more about her. What he finds out about her is intriguing, to say the least.

The movie becomes a lot of fun and takes off when the assassins catch up with Duncan. There’s a firefight that has a perfect sprinkling of comedy because it seems like the squad of assassins is too hilariously inept to do their job well. This makes pretty well every situation with them end in a great big, sometimes raunchy mess which Åkerlund relishes providing.

Mostly it’s just a lot of fun to watch Mikkelsen in the role of an assassin, he’s a great physical actor. Because his performance is so straight-laced and quiet, he makes a perfect assassin. And he has the perhaps unintended effect of nailing his part and creating some of the funniest parts of the movie. Some of the banter between Duncan and the assassin squad is great, as well. Hey, any assassin that can get away from an attempt on his life while naked is a good one.

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Vanessa Hudgens plays her part really well, given that her character Camille has many pratfalls to make before Duncan gets the ruse. There’s a great story in there that makes me think she and Mikkelsen would make a good assassin duo. But there are too many good wrinkles in the story to give away the delicious ending, which, while problematic at times in coming to the climax, does give a great pay-off. Without giving away too much, I really enjoy watching Mads Mikkelsen blow bad guys away, and the tenacity with which Duncan escapes every sticky situation is really cool. And there aren’t any similarities to JOHN WICK at all that I could see. It was good to see that POLAR strives to be it’s own movie-slick, pulpy, and fun.

In short, the movie POLAR is worth seeing once. Mostly to see Mads Mikkelsen fight bad guys. He does have an awful lot of guns and one or two good reasons why he wants to retire. Unlike John Wick, he probably will stick with just a goldfish as a pet.

POLAR is now available on Netflix.

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