This week, Mads Mikkelsen stars in Polar. It’s not to be confused with Arctic, which opens next week. That movie is a man-versus-nature epic in which Mikkelsen’s character must successfully navigate unyielding cold and snow if he is to live.
Polar, which begins streaming on Netflix tomorrow, is also a survival story in its own way. It asks whether an actor’s effortlessly raffish, deliciously deadpan charms can make it out of a fetid misfire that plays like Uwe Boll’s John Wick. (Not having seen Arctic, I can assume only Polar has the distinction of placing Mikkelsen naked and dick-deep in drifting snow to dissolve foes’ heads with a sniper rifle during one of the film’s precious few amusements.)
Lazy, laborious, long and generally loathsome, Polar is suckish where it thinks it’s puckish. It certainly runs counterpoint to the minimalist inspirations of its dialogue-free comic book source, created by Victor Santos and given more traditional bona fides of the medium once it was picked up by Dark Horse.
Music-video impresario emeritus Jonas Åkerlund infuses his direction with oversaturated Day-Glo debauchery and more leering ass shots than the oeuvre of Clint Eastwood circa 2018. Rarely has an action film felt so much like cover for a proctological exam. Or, for that matter, featured a proctological exam … after which the recipient enjoys fresh peach pie. And that’s before a scene in which a woman licks a stripper’s butt cheeks while she’s twerking onstage.
By now, you’re surely wondering: What the hell is this thing? Mikkelsen plays Duncan “The Black Kaiser” Vizla, a grizzled assassin for the Damocles Agency who’s staring down 50 and mandatory retirement. (“No one wants a hitman with Alzheimer’s,” quips one character. Indeed, as someone already made that movie!) The upside: Damocles has a great retirement plan, netting Duncan a cool $8 million for his planned solitude in the snowy climes of Montana.
Ah, but Duncan’s boss, Mr. Blut, has other plans. Blut is played by comedian Matt Lucas, who here resembles a cross of ’80s singer Howard Jones and a Gerald Scarfe illustration for Pink Floyd and who has certainly never been less funny. Blut wants to sell the business; to whom is unclear … perhaps evil hedge-fund managers. But he can only do so if he can demonstrate a profit, which is difficult to do when you send your slice-and-dicers into the sunset with seven figures.
Duncan’s contract states that if he dies before retiring, his benefits will go to next of kin. But what killer can afford kin? The loophole, then, is that Damocles gets to keep the money and demonstrate said profit. So Blut sets about to make sure Duncan doesn’t live to see a half-century. At the precise moment when Polar should kick in with Mikkelsen mowing down or mashing up inferior foes, it’s instead boring enough that you’ll start to wonder: What set of insurance loopholes might Blut’s plan demand in real life … and why would anyone continue to work for him knowing he’ll turn them into dog meat in 15 years?
Then again, when the action does arrive, it’s so heinously choreographed or hideously cut together that your inquiry will instead pivot toward wondering how this film could last 118 minutes … and just how wrong this particular night of Netflix roulette went so wrong so quickly. At least there’s one segment, in which Duncan hightails it out of a particularly horrifying torture scenario, put together with panache. Only in this moment do we get a sense for the streamlined shoot-’em-up (or, at the very least, Shoot ’Em Up) that Polar should have been.
Part of Polar’s problem is its parade of oversold star power, such as that term could apply to supporting players like Vanessa Hudgens, Johnny Knoxville and Richard Dreyfuss. Part of it is a peripatetic sense of location-hopping and overly perspiratory pulp that fell out of vogue well before Hudgens hoofed it on the Disney Channel. Part of it is Åkerlund ensuring multiple-angle coverage of one character’s erection deflating in death and another’s scrotum becoming a deep-south station of the cross.
Essentially, Polar offers only enervating, empty provocations, lacking patience or purpose for any of its attempts at black humor to land. It’s Kingsman without the know-how, Crank without the cunning, TV’s Happy! without the heart — although it tries for that, with unintentionally laughable results, during a climax that feels like a cut-rate Bourne Supremacy conclusion.
And yet while Polar is bad, it’s not entirely terrible. What film could be that stars the finest and most reliably entertaining Danish export since LEGO? Should you still attempt to endure Polar, you will most definitely be buoyed by Mikkelsen’s incomparable swagger, impressive physique and idiosyncratic way with silent comedy. The way he plays Duncan’s vision of a birthday celebration all alone, complete with party favors and one balloon, is funnier than any of the sundry gross punchlines surrounding him. Mikkelsen’s flirtatious “teacher” quip will make you swoon no matter which way you swing. (I mean, just get a load of that picture up there.) And, as is Mikkelsen’s wont, he’s not “still sexy” even when slathered in blood and sweat but in fact sexiest that way. Mikkelsen is all muscle and sinew, but his flavor gets lost in a movie over-marbled with fat.