Netflix sets its sights on the assassin film genre with Polar, a thrilling blood-soaked romp in the style of John Wick and Kill Bill and starring Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) and Vannesa Hudgens (Spring Breakers). Based on the Dark Horse graphic novel written by Victor Santos, Polar centers on an infamous assassin named Duncan Vizla (Mikkelsen), aka The Black Kaiser. In Duncan’s killer-for-hire organization, retirement starts at age 50, but when his employer considers him to be a financial liability, the aging hitman becomes a target for some of the world’s most dangerous death dealers.
While Polar doesn’t bring anything new to the genre, it does do enough narratively to differentiate itself from similar titles. Unlike Mr. Wick or Ms. Kiddo, Mikkelsen’s Duncan isn’t burdened with a tragic past. He’s just a simple assassin killing from 9-5 to earn a buck. His lack of backstory adds a layer of mystery to his character, which Mikkelsen embodies effectively. The Danish actor shows multiple emotional sides of Duncan throughout the film, depending on who he’s interacting with. In one memorable scene – reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop – Duncan demonstrates the art of killing to some school kids in one of the most hilarious show-and-tell displays in recent memory.
Duncan’s story is given more backbone with the addition of Camille (Hudgens), a socially awkward and mysterious young woman who lives next door to his snow-laden Montana cabin. The two form a compelling father-daughter bond that gives this murderous adventure some heartwarming moments. Camille is struggling to get over a tragic event in her past and even though Duncan would make a terrible therapist, it’s charming to watch the old assassin try to comfort her. Their relationship is the best part of Polar, while everything else – apart from the action – is forgettable.
Once the hit on Duncan goes out from on high, a kill squad in unleashed. This ragtag group of assassins is instantly annoying. And apart from their abundant use of foul language and flashy wardrobes, there’s nothing funny or interesting about them. This problem is hard to ignore since they are such an integral part of the first half of the film, which spends way too much time getting to know them.
There’s also Vivian, coolly played by Vikings star Katheryn Winnick. While not nearly as tiresome as the aforementioned goon squad hunting down Duncan, Winnick’s character loses her sting early on. Think of her as Duncan’s talent agent, offering him contracts and showing up to meetings in colorful outfits that make more of an impact than her character’s arc. There simply isn’t enough for Winnick to sink her teeth into, making her more like a lovely set dressing than a vital part of the story.
Apart from Camille and Duncan, Matt Lucas’ Herman Blut – the film’s chief antagonist – is the only other character worthy of note. Lucas expertly walks the line between irritating and charismatic. He feels very much like a “comic book character,” almost too over-the-top in some instances, but his ruthless nature and overall sinister demeanor balance his more flamboyant moments. Screenwriter Jayson Rothwell doesn’t overuse Lucas as often as he does with some of the other supporting characters.
Thankfully, all of the fight choreography and gunplay is fantastic. Duncan in action is a violent and brutal display of lethal efficiency. Director Jonas Åkerlund strikes a nice balance of gun-fu and hand-to-hand combat. There is a particularly riveting close-quarter combat fight in a subterranean hallway during the second half of the film that left me wincing in voyeuristic agony. If you like the type of action found in John Wick and the Bourne franchise, then you’ve come to the right place.